figurative "bootstraps" (1834)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Thu Aug 11 20:24:16 UTC 2005

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?)

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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