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‘Bootlegger,’ ‘moonshine’ predate Prohibition

Last Modified: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 3:06 PM

By Andrew Perzo / American Press

Where did the terms “bootlegger” and “moonshine” come from?

“Bootlegger,” which originated in the late 19th century, refers to the hiding of flasks of alcohol in the legs of high boots.

The earliest use of “bootleg” that The Informer could find in the American Press’ archives appeared — beneath the headline “Ran Blind Tiger,” a slang term for an illegal bar — in the Jan. 8, 1900, edition of the Lake Charles Daily American.

“Deputy Sheriff T. S. Hardy brought J. N. Farbis, alias Shorty, in from DeQuincy where he was selling liquor without a license,” reads the story. “A gang of men has been working in the woods’ towns along the Pittsburg and Gulf, selling whisky from bootlegs and from small establishments without going through the usual formality of getting a license.”

The earliest use of “bootlegger” in the archives is the following wry item, from the June 21, 1902, edition of the Lake Charles Weekly American:

“A bootlegger who dropped into Lemon, the new mill town north of Orange, and proceeded to ply his trade, was astonished to find himself requested to leave town, the request being enforced with a price of gaspipe in the hands of a brawny citizen. This indicates that the Lemonites are either opposed to whisky or are prejudiced in favor of good whisky.”

“Moonshine” has referred to illegally distilled liquor — often moved about the countrysides and coastlines at night — since at least the late 1700s.

English lexicographer Francis Grose, in his 1785 A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a catalogue of slang and obscene language, said the word then referred to “the white brandy smuggled on the coasts of Kent and Sussex, and the gin in the north of Yorkshire.”

Some early — and decent — entries from the book, in this case the third edition, printed in 1796 and available at

To sham Abram — To pretend sickness.

Alls — The five alls is a country sign, representing five human figures, each having a motto under him. The first is a king in his regalia; his motto, I govern all: the second, a bishop in pontificals; motto, I pray for all: third, a lawyer in his gown; motto, I plead for all: fourth, a soldier in his regimentals, fully accoutred: motto, I fight for all: fifth, a poor countryman with his scythe and rake; motto, I pay for all.

Altitudes — The man is in his altitudes, i.e. he is drunk.

Beggars bullets — Stones. The beggars bullets began to fly, i.e. they began to throw stones.

Canterbury story — A long roundabout tale.

Chatter box — One whose tongue runs twelve score to the dozen, a chattering man or woman.

Dog’s soup — Rain water.


The Informer answers questions from readers each Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. It is researched and written by Andrew Perzo, an American Press staff writer. To ask a question, call 494-4098 and leave voice mail, or email

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