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

Well-Known Expressions

Pull yourself up by the bootstraps


To succeed on your own


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

Challenge yourself with BookBrowse Wordplays

Editor's Choice

  • Book Jacket: The Latecomers
    The Latecomers
    by Helen Klein Ross
    The Latecomers is the third novel written by acclaimed author Helen Klein Ross, following What Was ...
  • Book Jacket: The Inflamed Mind
    The Inflamed Mind
    by Edward Bullmore
    It is common knowledge that depression diminishes the quality of sufferers' lives, but few people ...
  • Book Jacket: The Adults
    The Adults
    by Caroline Hulse
    Things have already fallen apart on the first page of The Adults. The novel opens with an emergency ...
  • Book Jacket: News of Our Loved Ones
    News of Our Loved Ones
    by Abigail DeWitt
    The Delasalle family of Abigail DeWitt's News of Our Loved Ones are no strangers to the dark specter...

Book Discussion
Book Jacket
by Michelle Obama

An intimate, powerful, and inspiring memoir by the former First Lady of the United States.

About the book
Join the discussion!

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    House of Stone
    by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

    A masterful debut, pulsing with dark humor, that explores the often destructive act of history-making.
    Reader Reviews

Win this book!
Win Uncommon Type

Uncommon Type
by Tom Hanks

Surprising, intelligent, heartwarming, and a must-have for Tom Hanks fans!


Word Play

Solve this clue:

Tell I T T M

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.