Boilerplate Etymology: a metaphor built on a metaphor

July 6, 2022 - By
Recently a team member asked me why we use the term “boilerplate”. A metaphorical shorthand is only ideal if it’s understood, otherwise it starts being poor communication, so I finally looked up the etymology of the term!
First, here’s the context in which I was using it as a software/web development term. “Boilerplate” became common language for me after working on multiple teams that use it; for me it’s the starting point of a complex website project. While we use “library” or “framework” to refer categorically to tools like React or Bootstrap, “Boilerplate” implies a collection of tools and possibly content that have some configurations already setup to speed up the start of a project. At Thrillworks we had a Boilerplate for the BlackBerry mobile site that we would use as a starting point before creating the site in a new language. At Carpages the boilerplate was the starting point for a new Dealersite; with options configured as Twig variables: The first site took months to build, subsequent sites using the boilerplate would take days. Boilerplates save time by an order of magnitude.
A literal plate on a boiler

This first image is a literal OG boiler, and it has a plate with text on it… This is not the true meaning actually; it’s just the first instance of the term having meaning.

Old school printing letters

In the 1800s we were doing printing by using individual letter blocks all stacked together – the image above is “the quick brown fox” text being set for printing  in some sans-serif font; these would get basically inked then stamped onto paper. You can imagine how taxing this would be – and how typos or changes that cause new word-wrapping would be cumbersome.

Boilerplate for printing

This third image is a printing boilerplate – it wouldn’t need text manually and time-consumingly lined up like in the previous image. Instead, it was more like the text plate on the literal boiler – a person managing the printing could simply ink and stamp these as-is. You can imagine this would be an efficient way to have an ad printed in various newspapers around the country as an example. This is the etymology of the code-base boilerplate: a preset bit of content that isn’t built from scratch. Unlike this original application we do customize them quite a bit.

But, the first printing boilerplate was itself a metaphor by name. So a code/software boilerplate is a metaphor built on a metaphor, which is really poor communication ironically!

Categorized in:

This post was written by Arley