Spying a candy dish, you might ask if you can have a piece. In my experience, if you’re asking a Newfoundlander, the odds are significant that the response will be “Fill your boots.” It’s apparently a common expression on the island meaning, “help yourself” or “feel free.”
Curious, I decided to find out if I could find the origin of the phrase. Although I discovered a number of candidates, none seem like the perfect origin.
A bottle of rum
My favourite appears as a comment by VS Prasad on theanswerbank.co.uk in response to a question about the meaning of the phrase. It says,
At the HMS Victory museum in Portsmouth UK, you can buy a thick leather cup lined with pitch. This is a replica of the sailor’s mug used on board in Nelson’s time, and it was used (among other things) for the rum ration when issued. This cup is called a “boot”, since boots are made with leather. When things were good and you got an extra rum ration, sailors were told “Fill Yer Boots”!
The problem is if the flasks were known as boots, I’d express the phrase to be “fill your boot” unless the sailors were given a ration large enough to require more than one.
The same commenter also suggests:
Wetting your pants and “filling your boots” after a fright
While this makes sense, I’ve never heard the phrase used this way. Strike.
Shoes, not boots
In a number of places I’ve seen it suggested as an alternate to “fill your shoes” meaning the act of taking someone’s place in a job or other position. I’ve never heard the phrase used this way either. Strike.
Boots are the new suitcase
The idea of ‘filling your boots’ almost certainly dates back to the days when a victorious army would plunder the places they had recently attacked and defeated. Obviously, the soldiers would stuff their pockets, saddle-bags or whatever and then — so as not to miss anything — even their boots with booty…
What sort of plunder could you carry away in your boots? The only thing I can imagine is coins, and that’s still not a satisfactory answer. Coins are heavy. Strike.
Another suggestion by VS Prasad claims,
the phrase originated with the english Cavaliers, who wore thigh-high riding boots. When drinking, rather than stepping outside to relieve himself, a Cavalier apparently had the option of doing so into his boots. Thus, “filling his boots” meant he could drink all he wanted without leaving the table.
That’s just nasty. Can you imagine the condition of the boots if subjected to this treatment on a regular basis? Nasty. I question its accuracy as well, because unless you’re standing, the ‘filling’ is as likely to run onto the floor as it into the boot. This is ignoring the obvious fact that unless the boot is going to be high enough to reach the very top of one’s thigh, the filling is going to be an error-prone operation even when standing.
Certainly the first image that comes to my mind upon hearing the phrase is one’s boots filling with some sort of liquid, but I have a hard time believing it was brought into popular usage because people actually did this.
Regardless, the phrase still amuses me.