Idioms mean what idioms mean. I get that. So at this point, “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” means to improve one’s situation or succeed through one’s own efforts, without outside help. But the fact that pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps is, in reality, impossible, is too telling a part of this phrase’s origins to ignore.
I mean, try it. If you have boots with bootstraps, hold onto those loops at the top of the heel and try to launch yourself upward. You can’t do it. You need someone else to grab those bootstraps and send you upward. You need, let’s just say it, help.
The unaided, by-one’s-bootstraps path to prosperity has become an integral part of what is known as “the American dream.” I will not reiterate here the many, many valuable critiques of the idea that climbing the economic ladder is simply a matter of hard work — an idea that typically rests on the misguided notion that we all start on even footing. And some of those critiques have mentioned the “corruption” of the phrase’s original meaning, which was exactly what I mention above: to try to do the impossible.
Despite these critiques, the history of this expression isn’t widely known, and anyone who has read my columns here in the past knows that I’m a firm believer that understanding the history of phrases and words gives us a more nuanced ability to use — and challenge — them. To provide the brief history below, I am drawing on the excellent word sleuthing work of Ben Zimmer and Barry Popik; please refer to their posts for more thorough coverage and many more examples.
The first citation we have about lifting oneself by one’s bootstraps comes from the Chicago newspaper, Workingman’s Advocate (1834): “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.” Mr. Murphee was being critiqued for his claim to have invented a perpetual-motion machine.
For the rest of the 19th century, from what we can tell, the expression referred to absurd and unfeasible attempts to better one’s situation. Here is one great example from the Madison City Express (1843):
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.”
And here’s Bryant & Stratton’s Counting House Book-Keeping (1863):
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.
Even in the early 20th century, the expression could still refer to trying to do the impossible; here is an example from Popular Mechanics (1908):
When steam was turned on the pressure in both ends of the cylinder was perfectly balanced through this connection, and the piston could not move any more than a man can lift himself by his bootstraps.
By the 1920s the expression had shifted to refer to something that was not only possible but also desirable. The Oxford English Dictionary offers James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) as its first example:
There were ... others who had forced their way to the top from the lowest rung by the aid of their bootstraps.
And here is a quote from the volume British Authors of the Nineteenth Century (1936):
A poet who lifted himself by his own boot-straps from an obscure versifier to the ranks of real poetry.
Again, idioms mean what idioms mean: We don’t parse them word by word, and their meanings can and do shift over time. But given the very real problems with the idea of simply pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps as the solution to economic distress, I find it helpful to consider the literal impossibility of the original metaphor. Its original users understood this well.
Let me end with a powerful quote from the article “The Truth About Globalization” in Public Interest (2002):
Expecting the poorest people in the world to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, without access to foreign investment, training, technical skills, or markets, verges on indifference or cruelty.
We have always needed a helping hand to get over a fence, literal or metaphorical, that towers too high for us to jump over on our own steam.