A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from September 09, 2012
“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps”

To “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps” means to succeed without outside help. “Over the Cumberland river or a barn yard fence by the straps of his boots” was cited in print in 1834 and “attempts to lift one’s self over a fence by pulling one’s own boot-straps” is from 1852. To pull one’s bootstraps to lift oneself over a fence was a 19th century example of an impossible task.

“Up By His Own Bootstraps/ A Hard Route to Success Proved Easy to “Griff"/ Now the One Man Commercial Club of Lovewell Kas.” was a 1922 newspaper headline. To “pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps” had acquired the modern meaning of “to lift oneself out of poverty.” The expression has been frequently used in politics and in business since the 1970s.

[This post was assisted by information posted by Ben Zimmer in August 11, 2005 to the American Dialect Society listserv.]


Wiktionary: pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps
Etymology
Early 19th century US; attested 1834. In original use, often used to refer to pulling oneself over a fence, and implying that someone is attempting or has claimed some ludicrously far-fetched or impossible task. Presumably a variant on a traditional tall tale, as elaborated below. The shift in sense to a possible task appears to have developed in the early 20th century, and the use of the phrase to mean “a ludicrous task” continued into the 1920s.

Widely attributed to The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, (1781) by Rudolf Erich Raspe, where the eponymous Baron pulls himself out of a swamp by his hair (specifically, his pigtail), though not by his bootstraps; misattribution dates to US, 1901. The Adventures is primarily a collection of traditional (centuries-old) tall tales; using bootstraps presumably arose as a variant on the same tall tale, or arose independently.

Verb
to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps

1. (idiomatic) To begin an enterprise or recover from a setback without any outside help; to succeed only on one’s own effort or abilities.

Wikipedia: Bootstrapping
Bootstrapping or booting refers to a group of metaphors that share a common meaning: a self-sustaining process that proceeds without external help.
The term is often attributed to Rudolf Erich Raspe’s story The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, where the main character pulls himself out of a swamp by his hair (specifically, his pigtail), but the Baron does not, in fact, pull himself out by his bootstraps. Instead, the phrase appears to have originated in the early 19th century United States (particularly in the sense “pull oneself over a fence by one’s bootstraps"), to mean an absurdly impossible action, an adynaton.

Etymology
Tall boots may have a tab, loop or handle at the top known as a bootstrap, allowing one to use fingers or a tool to provide greater force in pulling the boots on. The saying “to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps” was already in use during the 19th century as an example of an impossible task. Bootstrap as a metaphor, meaning to better oneself by one’s own unaided efforts, was in use in 1922. This metaphor spawned additional metaphors for a series of self-sustaining processes that proceed without external help.

(Oxford English Dictionary)
Colloq. phr. to pull (lift, raise, etc.) oneself (up) by one’s (own) boot-straps: to raise or better oneself by one’s own unaided efforts; hence allusively.
1922 J. Joyce Ulysses iii. 601 There were..others who had forced their way to the top from the lowest rung by the aid of their bootstraps.
1936 S. J. Kunitz & H. Haycraft Brit. Authors 19th Cent. 213/1 A poet who lifted himself by his own boot-straps from an obscure versifier to the ranks of real poetry.
1937 V. D. Scudder On Journey iii. ii. 306 Humanity could never pull itself up by its own bootstraps.
1960 D. Lessing In Pursuit of Eng. 35, I had no money, I could have got some by writing to my family, of course, but it had to be the bootstraps or nothing.

30 September 1834, New-York )NY) American, pg. 2, col. 4:
KNOW YE, that I, NIMROD MURPHREE, of the city of Nashville, and state of Tennessee, have discovered perpetual motion.
N. MUROHREE.

Nashville, Aug, 27, 1834.—We clip the above from the last number of the Nashville (Tenn.) Banner, where it appears as an advertisement, without note or comment. Probably Mr. Murphree has succeeded in handing himself over the Cumberland river, or a barn yard fence, by the straps of his boots. We advise him to send his pretensions on the next Congress by Col. Crockett himself, whose motto is “go ahead!”—[Mobile Adv.]

4 October 1834, Workingman’s Advocate (New York, NY), pg. 1, col. 1:
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.

Google Books
July 1840, Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review, pg. 358:
And the man who violates it in argumentation, is to the eye of enlightened reason guilty of as gross an absurdity as he who attempts to raise himself over a fence by the straps of his boots.

Google Books
A System of Natural Philosophy; in which the principles of mechanics, hydrostatics, hydraulics, pneumatics, accoustics, optics, astronomy, electricity, magnetism, steam engine, and electro-magnetism, are familiarly explained, and illustrated by more than two hundred engravings ;to which are added, questions for the examination of pupils; designed for the use of schools and academies (53rd edition)
By J. L. Comstock
New-York, NY: Robinson, Pratt, & Co.
1843 (copyright 1838)
Pg. 40:
Had the sails received the whole force of the wind from the bellows, the boat would not have moved at all, for then, action and re-action would have been exactly equal, and it would have been like a man’s attempting to raise himself over a fence by the straps of his boots.

10 May 1852, Daily Commercial Register (Sandusky, OH), pg. 2, col. 3:
We have seen persons, when riding up hill, lean forward thinking to help in that way draw themselves up—who would, when seeing others lift a heavy load, grunt consumedly from motives of benevolence; and have heard of attempts to lift one’s self over a fence by pulling one’s own boot-straps, or by buckling up one’s suspenders. Pray tell us, Mr. Attorney General, as a friend of the new constitution, whether we have the privilege of being grateful to our new Auditor for a substantial favor and relief from these repetitions, making the exemption larger than it otherwise would be, or whether he is merely trying to help draw the load by leaning forward,—grunting while others lift, and tugging away at his own boot-straps to lift the State out of the hardships of taxation.

16 January 1861, Chronicle & Sentinel (Augusta, GA), pg. 3, col.1:
If you make a dead pull it is like a man trying to lift himself over a fence by his bootstraps. (...)—Rarey’s Lecture.

29 September 1861, Cincinnati (OH) Daily Enquirer, “How to Manage a Running or Daily Horse,” pg. 1, col. 7:
No man can ever hope to hold in a running horse by pulling evenly upon the bit; he might just as well try to lift himself over the fence by pulling at his boot straps—it can’t be did.
(A lecture recently given in New York by Rarey, the horse tamer—ed.)

15 May 1862, Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco, CA), pg. 3, col. 3:
Mr. Porter proposed that the member who saw a gap in the Constitution through which he could creep be allowed to lift himself over his desk by his bootstraps. [Laughter.]

24 August 1876, Daily Inter-Ocean (Chicago, IL), “There’s Millions In It: Mr. Tilden’s Plan for Paying the National Debt Analyzed and Made Plain,” pg. 5, col. 5:
In theory a man can lift himself over the fence by his boot-straps. If he can lift one ounce more than his own weight, over he goes, and is on the other side of the fence in a jiffy. But on account of some defect in the boots or the boot-straps, the problem has so far failed in practice. But Mr. Tilden works in a higher sphere.

21 January 1885, New-York (NY) Daily Tribune, “‘Making’ Good Times,” pg. 4, col. 2:
The excellent gentleman who undertook a number of years ago to lift himself by his own bootstraps has been hoisting away ever since without much success. It is quite true that confidence is one of the things needed.

Google News Archive
21 September 1892, The Daily Free Press (Easton, PA), “No Strikes Occur In Protected Industries,” pg. 4, col. 5:
The man who endeavors to show that strikes are caused by protection and the man who tries to lift himself by his bootstraps are descended from the same parent stock.—Kansas City Journal.

12 July 1898, The Enquirer-Sun (Columbus, GA), “Wit and Humor,” pg. 6, col. 3:
Hawkins—I see Teddy Roosevelt has been raised to the rank of Colonel.
Tucker—Yes indeed, and that explodes another old theory.
Hawkins—What theory is that?
Tucker—That a fellow can’t raise himself by his own bootstraps.—Richmond Dispatch.

Google Books
May 1908, Popular Mechanics, pg. 314:
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.

Google Books
Fanny Herself
By Edna Ferber
New York, NY: Frederick A. Stokes Company
1917
Pg. 286:
“If there’s anything in any of them, he’ll pull himself up by his own bootstraps.”

19 November 1922, Kansas City (MO) Star, pg. 2C, col. 4:
Up By His Own Bootstraps
A Hard Route to Success Proved Easy to “Griff”
Now the One Man Commercial Club of Lovewell Kas.


Google Books
October 1928, Popular Science Monthly, “The Colorado Spanned at Last” by Ellsworth Bennett, pg. 19, col. 1:
The bridge is remarkable for the fact that the builders, to reach across the gorge, figuratively had to lift themselves by their bootstraps.

Wikipedia: By His Bootstraps
“By His Bootstraps” is a science fiction short story by Robert A. Heinlein that plays with some of the inherent paradoxes that would be caused by time travel. It was originally published in the October 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction under the pen name Anson MacDonald.

OCLC WordCat record
By their own bootstraps
Author: William M Tugman
Edition/Format: Article : English
Publication: National Municipal Review, v33 n8 (194409): 386-390
Database: CrossRef

OCLC WorldCat record
By their bootstraps: an approach to elementary school leadership.
Author: Robert E Lucas; Howard E Wakefield; Ohio Education Association. Dept. of Elementary School Principals.; Cooperative Program in Educational Administration. School-Community Development Study.
Publisher: [Columbus] 1955.
Edition/Format: Book : English

OCLC WorldCat record
By their bootstraps; a history of the credit union movement in Saskatchewan
Author: Muriel Robbins Clements
Publisher: Toronto, Clarke, Irwin, 1965.
Edition/Format: Book : English

OCLC WorldCat record
By her own bootstraps : a saga of women in North Carolina
Author: Albert Coates
Publisher: [Chapel Hill, N.C. : s.n.], 1975.
Edition/Format: Book : English

a better world is probable
“Pulling Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps”: An Etymology of an American Dream
Posted on 17 May, 2011
The notion of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” has become a notion so fundamental to the mainstream American ethos that it’s highly unlikely that any sincere candidate running for public office could actually challenge the idea directly without committing an act of political suicide. The expression is meant to imply something like “improving oneself by one’s own efforts” and speaks to the rather hyper-independent and gritty identity captured in the fantasy of the American West or the idealized middle class of White suburbia in the 1950s.
(...)
By the 1970s and 1980s, of course, it seems that the phrase had not only taken on its contemporary understanding, but had actually become a regular part of America’s political and social vernacular.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityWork/Businesses • Sunday, September 09, 2012 • Permalink


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