lift oneself by one's own waistband (1834)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Mon Aug 29 08:15:04 UTC 2005

Here's another expression of impossible self-lifting dating back to 1834,
the same year as the earliest cite I've found for the more familiar
"bootstraps" expression. I take this as further evidence that the
M√ľnchhausen tales had nothing to do with the origin of bootstrapping,
since there were a number of common variants in the 19th century used
without reference to the good Baron.

The source for the "waistband" version may be in the legends of Saint
Patrick, if the 1836 cite is any indication. Note also the 1860 cite from
none other than David Crockett, who credits the impossible task to "little
Van" (i.e., Martin van Buren, one of Crockett's favorite targets).

* lift (or pull, etc.) oneself (up) by one's (own) waistband(s)
* lift (or pull, etc.) oneself (up) by (the waistband of) one's (own)

1834 _Workingman's Advocate_ 5(39) 10 May 3/1 A wag the other day remarked
that the project of loaning "the _credit of the State_ to the _People_
thereof," was something like a man trying to raise himself from the ground
by pulling at the waistband of his own breeches. [APS]

1836 _Western Literary Journal and Monthly Review_ 1(3) Aug. 192 Saint
Patrick may have lifted himself heavenward by the waistbands, but the feat
is only compatible with an uncommon endowment of muscle. [APS]

1837 _North American Review_ 45(97) Oct. 500/3 They stand, striving to
carry or push it along with them, and with about as much success as a man
might have, who should sagaciously attempt to lift himself in a basket, or
by the waistband of his own unmentionables. [APS/MoA Cornell]

1842 _Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate_ 13(50) 16 Dec. 400/3 It is
good to rise in the world, but never hoist yourself up by the waistband.

1845 _Brownson's Quarterly Review_ 2(3) Jul. 392 Who of you can lift
himself up by his own waistbands? The thing is as impossible in morals as
in mechanics. [APS]

1846 _Southern Literary Messenger_ 12(5) May 274/1 She would, therefore,
be in as hopeless a predicament as the witch, or as a gentleman, who
should try to raise himself from off the ground by catching hold of his
own breeches and lifting thereby. [MoA Michigan]

1847 _American Whig Review_ 5(2) Feb. 139 In short, every man ... must
scorn to be upheld by any external support, and assert the inalienable
right to hold himself up by his own breeches. [MoA Cornell]

1849 _Mercersburg Review_ 1(5) Sep. 500 Jacob Albright, of course, had
quite as much right to originate a new ministry, in the same way; which,
however, is very much like a man pretending to lift himself up from the
ground by his own breeches or boot-straps. [APS]

1850 T. CARLYLE _Latter-Day Pamphlets_ 5 Shall evil correct itself, or
water run up hill, or a man lift himself by his own waistbands? [MoA

1852 _U.S. Democratic Review_ 31(172) Oct. 403/2 No wild fanatic, not even
your Catholic editor, who writes to public opinion to put public opinion
down, (trying to lift himself by his own waist-band, as it were,) will
venture to assert that now the temporal sovereignty of the Vatican is
supreme as a ruling power. [MoA Cornell]

1854 O.A. BROWNSON _The Spirit-Rapper_ 171 No man lifteth himself by his
own waistbands. [MoA Michigan]

1859 _N.Y. Times_ 10 Sep. 2/4 Counsel stated that the corporation and its
officers had violated every commandment in this transaction, and that the
entire performance, on their part, was like a man trying to hold himself
up by his own breeches. [PQ]

1860 D. CROCKETT _Life of Col. David Crockett_ 354 After toiling for more
than an hour to get my mustang upon his feet again, I gave it up as a bad
job, as little Van did when he attempted to raise himself to the moon by
the waistband of his breeches. [MoA Michigan]

--Ben Zimmer

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