Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Sun Aug 28 23:02:24 UTC 2005

On Sun, 28 Aug 2005 16:59:59 -0500, Cohen, Gerald Leonard wrote:
> I've been looking at Ben Zimmer's and Chris Waigl's ads-l messages on
> "pull oneself up by one's bootstraps." Ben has shown that several 19th
> century quotes with this expression associate it with (Baron)
> Münchhausen, the subject of numerous tall tales.

I don't recall seeing anything from the 19th century linking Münchhausen
to the bootstraps expression. The earliest allusion to Münchhausen I've
found so far is from 1901:

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.

> One of those tales involves the baron lifting himself out of a swamp by
> his own hair, although none of the tales has him lifting himself up by
> his bootstraps.
>   Meanwhile, Ben also presented a 1950 item in which the author wonders
> whether Davy Crockett might have originated the expression. That's an
> interesting possibility.  Would anyone know of any evidence to support
> it? If so, Crockett would likely have uttered the phrase under the
> influence of the Münchhausen story, and then other Americans would have
> associated the phrase directly with Münchhausen, even though the baron
> never did lift himself up by his bootstraps.

I have nothing to support the Davy Crockett conjecture, but why do you
think he would have "uttered the phrase under the influence of the
Münchhausen story"? Given the evidence so far, I think it's more likely
that the bootstrap-pulling image arose independently in the U.S., and only
later became conflated with the Münchhausen tales.

I also think it's significant that many of the early cites refer
specifically to pulling oneself over *a fence* by one's bootstraps (see
cites from 1834, 1840, 1861, and 1866 in my post of Aug. 11). If the
source isn't Davy Crockett, it might be some other oral tradition of tall
tales based in the rural U.S. Perhaps it's in some early collection of
children's stories.

>This, of course, is only speculation. And still, the question remains: If
>Münchhausen never lifted himself up by his bootstraps, why did 19th century
>writers/speakers associate this phrase with him?

If there was a revival of interest in Münchhausen in the late 19th
century, at a time when the "bootstraps" expression was becoming a firmly
established figure for an impossible task, then I think it wouldn't be too
surprising if the Baron became the presumed source (especially given the
similarity to the pigtail-pulling story -- see below).

>P.S. Would Ben perhaps share with us the portion of the Münchhausen story
>in which the baron pulls himself out of a swamp by his own hair?

Chris Waigl has already posted on this. The story doesn't appear in
Raspe's famous English translation of 1785, but it's in Bürger's
retranslated German version published the following year. Donna Richoux
posted to alt.usage.english in 2002 about a later English version that
includes the story.


This reminded me that I recently got ahold of a second-hand copy of
Erich Kastner's version of _Baron Munchhausen_ (J. Messner, 1957), which
was translated into English, is generously illustrated, and would have
been in the school libraries and public libraries of many of us growing
up. (Kastner was well-known as the author of the German children's book,
_Emil and the Detectives_.)

The relevant passage, I think, is on p. 39, when the Baron, stuck in the
mud with his horse, says "I pulled myself up out of the marsh by my own
pigtail." This is illustrated with a black and white sketch on p. 36.
It's the right idea, but no boots or bootstraps mentioned anywhere.

I just searched through the Raspe edition of "The Surprising Adventures
of Baron Munchausen" at the On-line books page, and cannot find anything
resembling this anecdote there. Kastner may have gotten it from one of
the old German editions.

--Ben Zimmer

More information about the Ads-l mailing list