figurative "bootstraps" (1834)

Chris Waigl cwaigl at FREE.FR
Thu Aug 11 21:03:59 UTC 2005

Benjamin Zimmer wrote:

>The OED entry for "boot(-)strap" clearly hasn't been revised in a while,
>as it only has cites for the figurative sense from 1922 (in _Ulysses_).
>Cites from the 19th century are easy enough to find on the databases,
>though the original sense was not simply "to raise or better oneself by
>one's own unaided efforts", but to try to do so in a ludicrously
>far-fetched or quixotic manner. The 1834 cite below, for instance, is
>ridiculing a person who claimed to have invented a perpetual motion
>It's been widely suggested that the "bootstrap" metaphor originated in the
>legendary tales of Baron von Münchhausen. As Chris Waigl recently pointed
>out on the Eggcorn Database (commenting on "boots-trap"), the original
>German version has a scene in which Münchhausen gets out of a swamp by
>pulling on his own hair. In an American retelling (supposedly), the Baron
>uses his bootstraps to pull himself out of a similar predicament. None of
>the 19th-century cites I've seen allude to the Münchhausen story --
>instead, they often refer to pulling oneself over a fence or up a steeple.
>So if Münchhausen really pulls himself up by his bootstraps in an American
>version (which I have yet to verify), then the writer probably took
>advantage of preexisting imagery for an absurdly impossible task. (Can
>anyone actually verify this? Fred?)
This is interesting. I'm sure you're on to something there.

My sources for the speculation about the "American re-telling" were
several half-way serious looking German web sites that, er, re-told that

The German and English Wikipedia pages have a bit more on the editorial
history of the tale:

The first version was anonymous and circulated in 1781 (over a decade
before the death of the Baron of Münchhausen). Then Rudolf Erich Raspe
translated the stories into English (why he would do that, I don't have
the faintest idea) in 1785, a text that was re-translated back to German
by Gottfried August Bürger a year later and published in Germany. The
latter is the "traditional" German version, which contains the story
with the hair tuft (end of chapter 4). (He pulled himself
_and_his_horse_ out of the morass, something I forgot; so I was wrong
about the boots being stuck, or might have remembered some cartoon
version I saw as a child.) There are lots of others, the most famous
probably Immenman's (1839).

The text easily available in English under Raspe's name
( is from 1895 -- an
entire century later -- and browsing through it, I can't find any
references to swamps, morasses, pulling oneself out or anything like it.
I have no idea if Bürger put this little story in, or if it was in the
original Raspe text, or the first anonymous version. In any case, much
of this circulated orally in Germany first.

So, yes, I find it likely that the "pulling oneself over/out of(?)
something by one's boot-straps" metaphor entered the Münchhausen story
from the English (language) side somehow, and arose independently and
maybe at the same time as the Münchhausen stories did in Germany.

Chris Waigl

>The shift in the metaphor's sense to suggest a *possible* task doesn't
>seem to have occurred until the early 20th century. Even in the 1927
>article I cited in a previous post ("The Bootstrapper", reprinted from the
>Times of London), the headstrong American belief in self-improvement is
>presented as rather preposterous.
>* "to pull (lift, raise, etc.) oneself (up) by the straps of one's boots"
>1834 _Workingman's Advocate_ 4 Oct. 1/1 It is conjectured that Mr. Murphee
>will now be enabled to hand himself over the Cumberland river or a barn
>yard fence by the straps of his boots. [APS]
>1840 _Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review_ July 358 And the man who
>violates it in argumentation, is to the eye of enlightened reason guilty
>of as gross an absurdity as he who attempts to raise himself over a fence
>by the straps of his boots. [APS]
>1866 _The Galaxy_ 2(1) Sep. 58 But we feel ourselves approaching gradually
>toward that simple myth of him who lifted himself over a fence by the
>straps of his boots. [APS/MoA]
>1867 _N. Amer. Review_ Apr. 620 Though not so palpably absurd, it is still
>of the same character as the efforts of the man who should essay to lift
>himself by the straps of his boots. [APS/MoA]
>* "to pull (lift, raise, etc.) oneself (up) by one's (own) boot-straps"
>1843 _Madison City Express_ (Wisc.) 2 Feb. 2/5 His Excellency is certainly
>attempting to lift himself up by his boot-straps, or, what is much better,
>is "sitting in a wheel-barrow to wheel himself." [NPA]
>1843 _Southport Telegraph_ (Wisc.) 14 Feb. 3/1 The Racine Advocate, in
>speaking of the subject, significantly remarks that 'the Governor must be
>trying to pull himself up the boot-straps.' [NPA]
>1848 _New Englander and Yale Review_ 6(23) July 326/1 We have no great
>objection if teachers' conventions and associations pass resolutions of
>self-commendation; though this process of acquiring "due dignity" reminds
>us of the experiment sometimes made by boys, untaught in the natural laws
>of action and reaction, who try to elevate themselves to a more
>conspicuous position by means of their boot straps. [MoA Cornell]
>[Also reprinted in: 1848 _Huron Reflector_ (Ohio) 8 Aug. 1/3]
>1858 _Atlantic Monthly_ 2(14) Dec. 770/2 He distrusts his tools, and then
>distrusts his own distrust, lifting himself by the very boot-straps in his
>metaphysics, to get at some foundation which will not move. [MoA Cornell]
>1861 _N.Y. Times_ 7 Jan. 8/3 No man can ever hope to hold in a running
>horse by pulling evenly upon the bit; he might as well try to lift himself
>over the fence by pulling at his boot~straps; it can't be did. [PQ]
>1862 _Chicago Tribune_ 12 Aug. 2/2 The hopeful individual who expects to
>raise a weight vastly beyond his strength, belongs to the same class of
>fools with great expectations, as he who promises to lift himself by his
>boot straps. [PQ]
>1863 _Bryant & Stratton's Counting House Book-Keeping_ 38 The person
>competent to construct a system of philosophy on such a basis, would be
>able to show how a man might lift himself by his own boot-straps, or get
>rich by taking money from one pocket and putting it in the other. [MoA
>1866 _N.Y. Times_ 9 Aug. 2/7 And from the top of Marcy's Slide, He by his
>boot-straps vainly tried, To lift himself to higher peak, While through
>the air was heard the shriek, 'Excelsior.' [PQ]
>--Ben Zimmer


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