Back in the 1800s, the expression “pull oneself up by the bootstraps” meant the opposite of what it does now. Then it was used mockingly to describe an impossible act.Which got me thinking: if that's true, when did it become a metaphor for self help?
An 1834 publication ridiculed a claim to have built a perpetual-motion machine by saying that the inventor might next heave himself over a river “by the straps of his boots.” An 1840 citation scoffs that something is “as gross an absurdity as he who attempts to raise himself over a fence by the straps of his boots.”
Fortunately other people have researched the question, giving us a good start. The long list of nineteenth-century uses presented here shows that the phrase was pretty quickly applied to social or moral uplift, but usually in a mocking way:
Madison City Express (Wisc.), 2 Feb.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."This started to change in the 1920s:
Southport Telegraph (Wisc.) 14 Feb. 1843: The Racine Advocate, in speaking of the subject, significantly remarks that 'the Governor must be trying to pull himself up the boot-straps.'
New Englander and Yale Review 6 July 1848: 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.
The Oxford English Dictionary cites James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) as its earliest example of the phrase, and it appears to illustrate the contemporary meaning: “There were ... others who had forced their way to the top from the lowest rung by the aid of their bootstraps.”I thought this would trace back to the British or American self-help movement, Samuel Smiles and all, but I can't find any evidence of that. The references above are the only ones I found in an hour of searching that date to before the 1950s. So I think the prominence of the phrase in a positive sense must date to the new conservatism of the Nixon/Reagan period, not so old at all.
A 1931 volume of Pattern Makers’ Journal notes, “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps; shake off your cloak of indifference and voluntary serfdom.” And in 1927, Britain’s Sunday Times published an editorial ridiculing the headstrong American belief in self-improvement as exemplified by “the American bootstrapper.”
Incidentally Robert Heinlein wrote a short story in 1941 titled "By His Bootstraps," but it concerns time travel and the resulting paradoxes, so I think we should make this another ironic use; it's easy enough to bootstrap yourself to success if you have a time machine.
I have used the saying a number of times in my preaching and have asked the congregation to bend over, grab the sides of their shoes, and pull . . . and see how far they go.
I did not know the original usage - thanks.
"I thought this would trace back to the British or American self-help movement, Samuel Smiles and all, but I can't find any evidence of that. The references above are the only ones I found in an hour of searching that date to before the 1950s. So I think the prominence of the phrase in a positive sense must date to the new conservatism of the Nixon/Reagan period, not so old at all."
How does one explain the transformation of "literally" to mean "figuratively"? People still use literally for its original intended meaning, and in fact the English language lacks any other word that could suitably replace it. And yet, people also use it to mean the exact opposite - not ironically, but reflexively, without thinking.
Lack of thought surely must warp language constantly. There are countless things that we've all heard or seen, but never had explained fully, and purely from the context in which we encountered them we think we know the gist of them. This is particularly prevalent when you are young, keenly observing the world around you but not always receiving a proper explanation for everything, and thus creating half-formed notions of how things work that sometimes never get dispelled later in life.
It's the same lack of thought that leads to errors like "wet your appetite" (whet your appetite), "straight laced" (strait laced), "taking flack" (taking flak), "sneak peak" (sneak peek), and "for all intensive purposes" (for all intents and purposes). You encounter the phrase, and you by context you understand how to use it, but you don't actually have a full understanding of why the words it uses.
Clearly part of that is just simple thoughtless spelling errors. (Flack / flak).
Clearly another part of it is cross contamination from similar phrases. (Whet your appetite / wet your whistle).
But I think it could be argued that sometimes what is happening is that figurative and descriptive phrases are being mistaken for idiomatic ones, and then get used as such. We're already so used to saying things to mean something other than they literally say, that I think whenever we encounter a phrase we don't understand, there's a risk that we just assume it's yet another idiom that is simply allowed to not make literal sense, and therefor we don't need to think deeper about it.
And the thing is, most idioms clearly did make sense once upon a time. They weren't always idioms - at some point, they were merely figurative phrases.
Some of them have simply had their original meanings largely forgotten - this is particularly common with nautical phrases, where the meaning was originally obvious on a sailing vessel, but which leaves non-sailors "without a clue", until such time as they manage to "learn the ropes". Since sailing went from being common to a rarity, so too did understanding of the real meanings of these phrases.
Other idioms clearly arise from ironic usages. Actors encouraging each other to "break a leg", stereotypical teenagers approving of something as "sick", etc.
Still others seem to be derived from euphemistic usages. You don't rest in a "restroom"; you don't speak in another language when asking others to "pardon your French"; and when you "buy the farm" or "kick the bucket", you (typically) don't actually do either of those things in the process.
Some idioms haven't changed at all linguistically, but the things they refer to aren't what they once were. A modern "pocketbook" is neither a book nor does it fit into a pocket, and yet the original pocketbooks were literally small pocket-sized books. "Silverware" used to actually be silver, just as "Chinaware" used to exclusively come only from China. Etc.
Meanings slip all the time, and I'm convinced a huge factor in that is simple innocent ignorance and imperfect comprehension. You encounter a word or phrase, you develop an imperfect usage of it, then you re-use it imperfectly, and someone ELSE adopts it from you, cementing the change. Have that happen often enough, across enough people and time, and it becomes a permanent shift in the language.
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