Why do we say "Pull yourself up by the bootstraps"?

Well-Known Expressions

Pull yourself up by the bootstraps

Meaning:

To succeed on your own

Background:

These days, many tall boots have zips but those that don't have, and all tall boots before zips had, a loop at the top which the user can put a finger or two through in order to pull the boot on. This is known as the bootstrap.

Pulling up with bootstraps can be found in a number of variations both negative and positive. For example, "don't try to pull yourself up by the bootstraps" means don't try to succeed on your own. It can also be used as an expression of praise, "he had a hard start in life but he pulled himself up by his bootstraps."

For the source of the expression, some point to The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a collection of fanciful stories mostly based on folk tales that were first published anonymously in the late 18th century. But actually, those who have the time and inclination for such things have looked through multiple versions of the Munchausen tales without finding a reference to bootstraps. The ever inventive Baron does pull himself and his horse out of a swamp by his own hair, but never by a bootstrap.

What we do know is the expression was in use in the 19th century and can be found in an 1834 edition of The Workingman's Advocate (a radical newspaper first published in 1829 which folded in 1836 and made a brief comeback in 1844-1845): "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."

Bootstrapping took on new life in the early days of computers (or possibly even to the early days of radio) to describe the process of loading a small amount of code to which was added progressively more complex code until the computer was ready for use. From this comes the term to "boot up" the computer.

Alphabetical list of expressions

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