The idiom “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”


Ok this phrase has NEVER made sense to me….you physically can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps. How did it become such a common idiom for (as I’ve heard it) “putting in hard work without help to earn a better life”? Seems counterintuitive

In: 13

Originally this phrase was used to describe trying to do something absurd and impossible, which makes much more sense. Around the 1920s it evolved into meaning doing something by yourself, without help, but actually doing it, no matter how improbable it seemed.

That makes less sense, but perhaps it reflected the optimism of the age. In the 1920s it seemed like many Americans really were becoming millionaires overnight, without any help from rich uncles, and the impossible suddenly seemed possible — until the 1929 crash, anyway.

It was supposed to be sarcastic, and was deliberately referring to something impossible. The sarcasm has been lost along the way. The phrase originally meant “to try to do something completely absurd / impossible”. That makes much more sense!

>“It’s hard to explain why the meaning of an expression changes over time. Sometimes things start off as having a kind of ironic or humorous edge to them, but that gets forgotten along the way,” Zimmer explained. “People have been referring to bootstraps in this metaphorical way for so long, the original irony of the expression was lost. Nobody’s thinking of the impossible image of pulling themselves over a fence.”
>“Maybe that says something about Americans and how they view themselves,” he added. “That something that seems utterly ludicrous and impossible becomes a regular idiom for improving yourself.”


Whilst clearly total nonsense (you’re not wrong at all) it’s become entrenched by the uncritical thinking that goes with a cool word or phrase, so means the opposite of what it means. Take the Americanism “I could care less” compared with the more widely and logically used “I couldn’t care less”, for instance. It means it’s opposite to Americans and sounds silly to the rest of us.

Anyway, just to fill in info, that’s why computers “boot up”, it’s used in the sense that they have to get running from a cold start, so a bit at a time, layer by layer they start from scratch. It was originally used with some irony/tongue in cheekness but nobody had anything better, so it stuck (like “virus” then “viral”, metaphors from life)

It started as a description of the impossible, as described in other comments.

Then when the impossible happened – poor people appearing to become rich overnight – it became different: it meant basically you had achieved the impossible. American economy seemed to give upward mobility a lot more… but it was never frequent or easy.

But now it has become ironic without being intended to: because you recommend to someone “do your own thing, pull yourself together”, and use an impossible act to describe what, in this reality and inequality, is also almost impossible to achieve.

It becomes even more ironic when “personal responsibility” ideologues say this is what the poor should do. Because they *are* describing an almost impossibility with an impossible act, isolated rare acts as a recipe for the masses.

They just make it appear possible and within the capacity of all people to excuse their destruction of the few mechanisms that relieve inequality; but their own expression betrays the underlying reality.