figurative "bootstraps" (1834)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Thu Aug 11 23:27:08 UTC 2005

On Thu, 11 Aug 2005 23:03:59 +0200, Chris Waigl <cwaigl at FREE.FR> wrote:

>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.

Checking around a bit more, I see that Michael Quinion looked into this a
few years ago but couldn't find the "bootstrap" incident in the tales.

Some versions of Rudolph Raspe’s book include an incident in which he
hauls himself (and his horse) out of the mud by lifting himself by his own
hair. This is so similar an idea that it is highly likely that it is
indeed the source. But somewhere along the way the story became modified
to refer to bootstraps — this seems to have originated in the USA early in
the nineteenth century; at least, the phrase was well known in that
country by the 1860s.

See also this post on alt.usage.english from Donna Richoux, who
corresponded with Quinion about his findings:

Quinion mentioned that he could not find (just as we could not) the
"bootstraps" idea in the Baron von Munchhausen story collection, which
is sometimes pointed to as the source.

The earliest references I can find linking Münchhausen and bootstraps make
the allusion rather indirectly.

Daily Review (Decatur, Ill.), Dec. 7, 1901, p. 7/1
Corn ... was under the lowest price in the opening range. Then it took a
good grip on its boot~straps and lifted. Munchausen wasn't in it at all,
for corn raised itself from bottom to the top of the day.
William Z. Ripley, "Railroad Valuation"
_Political Science Quarterly_ 22(4) Dec. 1907, p. 605
Once we admit evidence as to _total_ market value -- a direct expression
of earning power -- and, Münchausen-like, we are trying to lift ourselves
by our boot straps.
(Nearly the same quote also appears in Ripley's "Physical Valuation of
Railroads", _Political Science Quarterly_ 29(4) Dec. 1914, p. 595)

Here's the first explicit link I can find, and it's hardly conclusive:

"A Line O' Type Or Two", Chicago Tribune, Oct 18, 1950, p. 16/3
"He lifted himself by his bootstraps": A common saying, is it not? An
idiomatic figure of speech, indelibly rubber stamped on the Anglo-American
language. Nevertheless, Charles S. Stewart, assistant superintendent of
public instruction of the state of Illionis, has been trying to trace its
origin for weeks or months. ... It is our feeling that the end of this
trail will be found in some book of tall tales that has had wide
circulation. It is possible that Davy Crockett may have boasted that he
could lift himself out of a swamp by his bootstraps; if so, there are
numerous professors of American folklore and primitive humor who ought to
rally to Mr. Stewart's aid. We suspect, however, that Baron Munchausen was
the first bootstrap lifter, altho more than 50 years have passed since we
read the book that dealt with his marvelous adventures. It was published
in German in 1785, and its translation for juvenile amusement was widely
read in this country for many years.

(Sadly, those professors of American folklore and primitive humor didn't
heed the call...)

--Ben Zimmer

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