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Bootstrapping alludes to a German legend about Baron Münchhausen, who was able to lift himself out of a swamp by pulling himself up by his own hair. In later versions he was using his own boot straps to pull himself out of the sea which gave rise to the term bootstrapping.

In computers, this term refers to any process where a simple system activates a more complicated system. It is the problem of starting a certain system without the system already functioning. It seems just as impossible as "pulling oneself up by the bootstraps" which Baron Münchhausen, according to stories, could do. However, solutions, accordingly called bootstrapping, exist; they are processes whereby a complex system emerges by starting simply and, bit by bit, developing more complex capabilities on top of the simpler ones.

Semantic bootstrapping in linguistics refers to the hypothesis that children utilize conceptual knowledge to create grammatical categories when acquiring their first language. Thus, for example, categories like "type of object/person" maps directly onto the linguistic category "noun", category like "action" onto "verb", etc. This will get children started on their way to acquiring parts of speech, which later can be supplemented by other linguistic information. The hypothesis received some support from the experiments that showed that three- to five-year-olds do, in fact, generally use nouns for things and verbs for actions more often than adults do. However, syntactic bootstrapping and learning from distributional patterns of the language have also been proposed as a way for children to acquire word-classes.

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