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shameless pleading





Fill your boots

But a search under “cats and Christmas trees” is definitely worth your time.

Dear Word Detective: I recently listened to a crank call in which an eight year-old Dublin girl attempts to retain the services of a demolitions company in order to destroy her school. It’s amusing both in the sophistication of the girl (most of my crank calls at that age involved rude noises) and the willingness of the company to play along with the gag. (Like most things that have ever produced images or sound, it’s available on YouTube.) During the call, the girl uses the phrase, “Fill your boots, man!” which seems to mean, “Go for it!” I’m curious about the origin of that phrase, and if it’s Irish only. For that matter, where does “crank call” come from? — Greg Charles.

Ah yes, where would we be without YouTube? At this point, I’d be willing to give it a try. Actually it’s not so much the videos that bother me, although I definitely wasn’t invited to the meeting where we decided to give every certifiable crackpot on the planet a digital video camera. But what gives me the wimwams are the viewer comments on the videos, which make a monkey house at feeding time sound like the Algonquin Round Table.

Nonetheless, in the spirit of old-school journalism, I went to YouTube and listened to the call, which apparently took place at least three years ago, meaning the girl is now old enough to vote. Seriously, I doubt that she’s just eight. In any case, I’d actually call this more of a Prince-Albert-in-a-Can “prank” call than a “crank” call. “Prank calls” are jokes or tricks, either on the person answering or on the poor schmuck who winds up with forty-five pizzas on his porch. “Crank calls,” which often begin “longtime listener, first-time caller,” are phone calls from “cranks,” deranged individuals who earn the title by being mentally “bent” or “crooked” like a crank used to work a machine.

“Fill your boots” is definitely not restricted to Ireland, although it does seem most popular in Britain, Canada and Australia. It’s especially associated with football (what is called “soccer” here in the US), where it’s used primarily to mean “score lots of goals and win lots of games.” Owing at least in part to the popularity of that YouTube video, and probably to the current World Cup competition, as well, the internet is awash at the moment in speculation about what “fill your boots” means and where it came from.

I’ve found “fill your boots” used with two basic meanings. It’s used, as in your example, as an exhortation to “Go for it!” or “Get up and get going! Just do it!”  But it’s also used in the more particular sense of “take as much as you want” or “take advantage of the situation” (“There’s an open bar and a free buffet, so fill your boots, boys.”).

There is, unfortunately, no clear answer as to where “fill your boots” came from or originally meant. It is possible, and this is perhaps the most logical of the various alternatives, that “fill your boots” originally simply referred to putting on one’s boots in preparation for doing a task, and, by extension, to being equal to that task. If so, it would be related to the idea of “filling someone’s shoes,” taking another person’s place and being able to do their job.

It’s also been suggested that plundering armies in some unspecified “olden days” would fill their tall boots with loot (which may sound a bit silly but the term “bootleg” does indeed come from the practice of concealing contraband in one’s boots, so it’s not impossible). At the less-plausible end of the scale, there’s the suggestion that back when men wore knee-length boots, a determined drinker in a tavern might reach the point where repeated trips to the loo became tiresome and “filling one’s boots” was an easy alternative. Just how such behavior could possibly translate into “Just do it!” in a positive sense awaits explanation. “Fill your boots” also seems to be a fairly recent phrase, as I haven’t been able to find a use before 1990.

My guess is that the first origin I proposed, that of “put on your boots and get going,” is the source, quite possibly used in a military context as an exhortation to a group of soldiers. The “take all you want” usage would then be an extension of the “Act fast!” connotation of the original phrase.

25 comments to Fill your boots

  • It would appear Becky Barry was 8 at the time she made most of those prank calls, back in around 2006, though they were set up for her by a radio show. She’s now, in 2010, approximately 13 years old.

  • As all good sayings do, it comes from a sailor.

    The following is an excerpt from Memoirs of Serjeant Paul Swanston: being a narrative of a soldier’s life, in barracks, ships, camps, battles, and captivity on sea and land; with notices of the most adventurous of his comrades (no, that’s really the full name of the book), first published in 1818.

    In quick time they were at the wine-pipe; for a moment the new hands seemed at a loss for the means of getting the wine to their mouths; but the “wide-a-awake” boy sliped (sic) off one of his shoes in a twinkling, dipped it into the cask and drank.

    “Drink, you devils, drink!” he said; “its all one how much you drink, only don’t get drunk!” And again he filled his shoe, and again he drank. The previous debauch in connexion with the new, soon tumbled him on the ground; and he lay there gradually sinking into stupidity; but, as he took his leave of consciousness, he admonished the others to take care of themselves; to take as much as they could rightly carry; but not to get drunk, saying, as he sunk lower and lower himself, “Fill your boots, boys—fill your boots! Give me one small drop in a shoe to make me well again, for I’m— I’m—.”

    Alas, poor humanity! There lay in the deepest degradation, as good a fighting soldier, and, when he could not get drink, as cleanly and active a fellow as ever the English army possessed.

    I can’t think of anything more exemplary of gusto than a sailor getting blind stinking drunk out of his shoe.

    You can read the full text here.

  • Topi Linkala

    In every case I’ve read or heard ‘fill your boots’ used it’s not have been just “Go for it!” or “Get up and get going!”, but with the added idea that you should do it, because it’s your job. So don’t twaddle, but fill your boots.

  • Erik

    There’s a Grimms Fairy tale where a man makes a deal with the Devil for as much gold as he can fit in his boot. But, the gentleman’s boot has a hole in the bottom of it so it doesn’t fill up.

  • Win

    Means man-up and get it done.

  • ECS

    Topi Linkala is right I think, this could explain the origin of the saying, fill your boots: fufil your role, makes sense as boots or shoes are common metaphor for a role (like “in his shoes”).

  • Here in Australia I’ve heard it a few times and it has had nothing to do with getting a job done or any sense of responsibility, it’s been purely about saying “have as much as you want”.

    • Sam

      I am in Australia too and it means, here, at least, to fill your boots and get going. Get it done! (fill ya boots…..put your feet in your boots and GO)

  • Raoul

    I’ve always heard it as help yourself. The orgin seems to be based on sailor’s adventures, like pirates looting would not have any other way to carry what they’ve taken. Another: “to fill one’s boots”, when one is hanged the pant legs were tuck into the boots, at the point of execution the person evacuates and “fills their boots”.

  • rik O'Dean

    My Irish father often used the term
    “Bet yer Boots” So….. what’s up
    with that

  • Erick

    My father (born so long before 1990) uses this phrase occasionally. We live in Canada but his parents were from Britain. It is a combination of “Go for it” and “Take as much as you want.”

    I liked, “It is possible . . . that “fill your boots” originally simply referred to putting on one’s boots in preparation for doing a task, and, by extension, to being equal to that task.” It has the former sense but lacks the take-as-you-please sense of the phrase.

    As a Canadian whose cultural inheritance is British, I would definitely agree that this is a British-ism that is rather dated. I still use it, to great effect.

  • Louise

    Like Erick above, I’m from Canada and my father (also born long before 1990) uses this phrase occasionally. When we use it, it has the “go for it” meaning but usually in the context of “if you really want to, then go for it”, especially if he thinks the idea is kind of crazy but is willing to let me do it anyway. In my experience, it totally lacks any sort of implication that this is a duty or responsibility requiring manning up. Another phrase with exactly the same meaning to me is “knock yourself out.”

    • Beth

      Yes! Exactly as Louise has stated is how it has traditionally been used in my experience. I have a sense that the notion of “take as much as you want” comes from people mis-using the expression by guessing what it might mean and taking it too literally.

  • vic

    One theory carolean times has it that during Carolean times when cavalry troops wore thigh length boots, they were sometimes given leave to urinate in them if time was pressing. Consequently at informal drinking sessions they would not leave the table and urinate into them. This would seem to correspond with modern usage akin to help yourself to whatever is available.

  • george

    well thanks for the various explanations – my interest in trying to find the meaning of this phrase was because one of my favourite English punk bands “Leatherface” that i saw in London (England) in 1990 their 1990 album (that i bought) is titled “FILL YOUR BOOTS” – & then i went and saw/heard ‘Leatherface’ play at the Arthouse in Melbourne Australia (where i now live) when they were touring their 2010 album “The Stormy Petrel” & got to speak with Frankie Norman Warsaw Stubbs singer guitarist & main man of Leatherface – so thanks for filling my boots with your words!

  • Tania

    It did mean once literally fill your boots, as in pirates bounty, or cavalrymen on the battle field wearing high boots would go out after the battle, and fill their boots with the ‘booty’ (not Beyonce’s booty, but pickings). But in Ireland where I am from, it loosley now means, do well, get plenty of what you want/need! Usually for free, as in you gain without loss, indulge, get as much of it as you can!

    So if you said you were going off on holiday, I could say, hey fill yer boots man, as in get as much fun as you can etc. But if you said you were going out with a nice girl/boy that you really liked. You could say the same thing, ah fill yer boots man, meaning enjoy it etc. You can say it in ref to most things, when you wish someone well. You wouldn’t however say it in to someone going to a funeral or anything negative!

    Hope that makes sense :D

  • Shinigami Kayo

    The term “fill your boots” has been used by many groups and each independently grew into the common language more from the idea or perception than a given action. As in it did not mean to literally fill your boots but has been suggested it did. It is definitely of British origins. The story I heard of its origins falls into an area no one I have seen yet bring up. My ancesters are English and this story actually got handed down through oral stories.
    Sewer work was a less than honored profession but was a necessary one. As London grew a whole industry grew out of this occupation, where as the workers would skim and clean the sewers, they could than sell their work to farms as fertilizer. They would wear masks and other clothing to protect themselves from the filth, and the smell was not for the light hearted. The boots they wore would come up to the knees at times but at times the depth of sewage was pretty high and you had to walk delicately or fear creating waves and have the muck slop up into your boots.
    The term fill your boots was often refered to the rookie worker who would go at the job with gusto and make the rookie mistake of having his feet soaked by the sewage over filling into this boots. The veterens found humor in it as they snickered..yeah, go ahead, fill your boots. The phrase refers to the humerous encouragement of others to dive aggressively into a job with no forethought to consequences.
    The naval connect/mining connection and others may be equally valid and this is an example of a common object simply being the center of a phrase. The earliest example of the manure workers I think goes about to late 1600 early 1700

  • Sam

    Australian – to fill your boots and get going. Get it done! (fill ya boots…..put your feet in your boots and GO) I am sure the original context was different but then that is the way of all sayings, is it not?

  • Stephen

    I am a New Zealander currently living in Australia. fill you boots, prolifically used, in NZ means “go for it” here in Aus whenever I say it i get blank stares…I have yet to meet an aussie who says it or knows what I mean when I say it.

  • Walter

    In Newfoundland, same as New Zealand I guess. It just means ‘go for it’. Kinda like an American saying ‘knock yourself out’. It doesn’t mean take a lot of something, it just means if you want to do it, do it!

  • Tom

    I’m a Brit who grew up and lives in military circles. This expression is and has been used as a standard slang to mean “help yourself/take as much as you want/go for it” for the last few hundred years within the British military and started in the Navy.

    During the age of Sail the Navy used to use leather drinking cups (not as liable to break in rough seas as glass, china etc.). Because these cups would lose their shape with age and were made of leather they were known as “boots”.

    Life on board was harsh and the men would be given a small ration of “grog” (a mix of rum and water) in their “boots” at the end of their shift to help them relax a little.

    If there was something to celebrate (the King/Queen’s Birthday, or that of the Captain for example) they might expect a double ration. when something truly significant happened (winning in an engagement with the enemy or upon successful return home after a long voyage the men might be told “Fill Yer Boots, Boys!” i.e. “you deserve it lads… you have permission to get well and truly drunk.”

    I’m sorry to say that stories about the Cavalry relieving themselves into their boots is nonsense (I wish these stories were true but alas, no).

    Historically, those who joined Cavalry regiments came from families with money (horses being expensive to buy and keep) and regimental members were expected to supply their own mounts. People with money tended to be brought up “properly” i.e. educated and would be used to the finer things in life. This doesn’t marry with the notion of a bunch of drunks who would be willing to habitually p*ss themselves. love the idea, just not true though…

    to Shinigami Kayo: I haven’t heard of this source before and you do capture the very British mentality of finding someone else’s discomfort amusing perfectly so there may be some truth in here somewhere… however a couple of things don’t quite ring true.

    Firstly, human excrement does not make great fertiliser unless it’s been treated (and it wasn’t until relatively recently). Animal dung is much better and was quite literally lying around for free in the farms back then. However the tanning industry did use this sort of thing for curing and tanning leather in the old days (dog sh*t was highly prised) so there could be something there in terms of supply and demand.

    Secondly, the idea of protective clothing. Not so much… again this is a recent addition thanks to “health and safety”. In the time period we’re talking about we Brits had no problem shoving small children up chimneys to clean them and if the child got stuck then a fire was lit to “encourage” the child to unstick itself and finish the climb… needless to say that the death rate for a chimney sweep’s apprentice was rather high. I only relate this little gem to make the point that if kids were treated that way then, to be honest, if the only option you had to earn some coin was to go down the sewers then you were likely to be extremely unskilled and highly replaceable.. Any “protective gear” you had would be whatever you could fashion for yourself. I also find it hard to believe that anyone would attack that job with “gusto” – seriously… anyone who did that job, did it out of necessity not out of a need to impress anyone.

  • Thaskypilot

    “Fill your boots” – An offer to stop talking about it and do it! As in, ‘put your boots on and get in amongst it’.

  • Mei King Hei

    I spent 21 years as a tradesman in a Canadian Naval Dockyard. If you had need of something, you’d say, for example, “can I have some of your masking tape,” and the person would reply, “sure, fill your boots.” I assume the expression had been passed down from the Brit Navy.

  • Arizona

    It harkens back to the days when the victors in battle would pillage the city or town they laid siege to, using anything they could to take away the plunder….pockets, saddlebags and more often than not, even removing and filling their boots. Thus, they took full advantage of the offer at hand.

    It doesn’t have anything to do with putting your boots on to fulfil a duty.

  • Malcolm Hart

    I’ve always taken this to mean, particularly because of the context in which I’ve always head it said: “Go ahead, take as much as you want” or “You asked for it, so here it is; dive in”.

    In other words it’s an instruction to for the recipient help themselves and enjoy/benefit from/make the most of whatever activity is they are about to commence. It’s usually spoken by the person who has organised or is providing the activity in question.

    This is in British English at least. I’ve never heard it in the context of “put on your boots and get on with it”.

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