A Snake In The Boot: Meaning & Origin Revealed

Snake boots
Eugene Troskie/Shutterstock.com

Written by Kyle Glatz

Published: May 23, 2023

Share on:


Having a snake in your boot sounds rather unpleasant. After all, snakes certainly do not like being stepped on by humans. In fact, that’s one of the most common reasons that snakes bite people! Still, many people know the phrase from the Toy Story franchise. However, its origins go back much further and may have very dark connotations. Discover the meaning and potential origins of having a snake in the boot!

Possible Origins of ‘A Snake in the Boot’

Snake hides in the shoes.

Snakes have historically hid in boots, necessitating people to shake them out before putting them on.

A snake in the boot may mean that someone is seeing things that aren’t there, suffering from hallucinations, or dealing with the common problem of critters hiding in their footwear.

A few possibilities exist to explain the origin of mentioning a snake in the boot. Some of them are very straightforward, while others require a bit of imagination. Let’s delve into the meaning and origin of this idiom.

1. Snakes and Other Dangerous Creatures Do Hide in Boots

Snakes like to hide in many places to stay out of sight. For people that live in areas where snakes are common, like Texas, the threat posed by a snake in the boot is very real. If a person was to try to put on a boot with a snake in it, they could get bitten.

While that may not be too dangerous in parts of the world without venomous snakes, it’s a real issue in some places. For example, if someone found a rattlesnake or an eastern brown snake in their boot, the interaction could prove fatal. Thus, the origin of the phrase could be quite literal.

The phrase became commonplace in the modern world after the introduction of Woody from Toy Story. Thus,the idiom may have been meant to illustrate a snake sneaking into a cowboy’s boot back in the Old West. If this origin is true, it would ground the phrase in reality.  

2. Seeing Things That Aren’t There

Back in 1847, an article in The North Carolina Standard referenced politicians engaged in the “seeing of snakes.” The phrase implied that the Southern Federalists were seeing things that were not truly happening. Their minds played a trick on them.

This idiom is certainly a colorful way of saying that someone is seeing something that’s not real, but it makes sense. Someone that lives in an area with many snakes could look at a stick or an old garden hose and think it’s a snake. This is a very plausible origin for the idiom, and it might have something to do with the next explanation.

3. Hallucinations from Alcohol Withdrawal

Another potential origin for the idiom is much darker than the realistic snake crawling into a boot. One darker theory says that a snake in the boot could be from a person exclaiming the phrase while hallucinating. Some theorists have posited that an incredibly inebriated person could look at a pair of untied boots and see snakes rather than shoelaces.  

This event could also occur similarly to how some people say they see pink elephants during alcohol withdrawal. If one were to see a pair of untied boots while hallucinating, the individual may exclaim, “There’s a snake in my boot!” They would imagine that the strings to tie the boots are snakes.

Medical journals from the 19th century confirmed that patients going through alcohol withdrawal referenced seeing snakes amid other wildlife like toads.

Each of these could be the origin of the phrase. That means the idiom goes back much further than 1995.

Examples of Everyday Use

Bird, Feces, Car, Pigeon, Unhygienic

Coming outside to your freshly cleaned car covered in bird feces could be a real snake in a boot.

Of the three potential origins of the phrase, the one rooted in reality could be the true origin. While the idiom could refer to an actual snake in a boot, it could also be a metaphor. That would allow for a wider use of the phrase.

In this case, the metaphor would be an unwanted event, a nasty surprise, or an inconvenience. After all, nobody expects to find a snake in their boot.

For example, if a person went to drive to work and found a flat tire, that could be a snake in the boot. Also, if someone went to the kitchen for a midnight snack and slipped in cat vomit, that could be a snake in the boot. This phrase could be used to refer to any unpleasant, unexpected event.  

Is ‘A Snake in the Boot’ a Common Phrase Today?

Hiking on a Trail - Hiking Boots

The phrase seems to have passed out of common usage, and only meme makers seem to reference it these days.

No, most people do not use a snake in the boot as a phrase to denote an unexpected and unwanted surprise. The phrase is very antiquated. Most of its references come from stories from the 19th century. The phrase seems to have been excavated for use in modern films. Today, most people would probably not know what to make of the saying. That’s part of the reason that the term has become a meme.

Yet, nothing is stopping people from reviving the phrase. People could start referring to all of life’s inconveniences as a snake in the boot. Yet, the potential drawback is that reviving this phrase could be seen as making light of people that suffered from delirium tremens.

Still, the phrase is not very likely to make a comeback anytime soon. At least, not in any form beyond a meme.

The history of the phrase ‘a snake in the boot’ is not entirely clear. However, enough information about the phrase exists to develop three potential origins. In some cases, it refers to a real danger. In others, the phrase refers to imagined dangers, and some of those dangers are the result of a medical issue. Yet, people will continue to recognize the phrase as a movie quote or a meme instead of a serious phrase.  

Discover the "Monster" Snake 5X Bigger than an Anaconda

Every day A-Z Animals sends out some of the most incredible facts in the world from our free newsletter. Want to discover the 10 most beautiful snakes in the world, a "snake island" where you're never more than 3 feet from danger, or a "monster" snake 5X larger than an anaconda? Then sign up right now and you'll start receiving our daily newsletter absolutely free.

Share this post on:
About the Author

Kyle Glatz is a writer at A-Z-Animals where his primary focus is on geography and mammals. Kyle has been writing for researching and writing about animals and numerous other topics for 10 years, and he holds a Bachelor's Degree in English and Education from Rowan University. A resident of New Jersey, Kyle enjoys reading, writing, and playing video games.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.