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Etymology as ideology critique

I just commented on the Tuesday Hatred that I hated the phrase “to pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.” There I remarked that I would be delighted if the phrase in its original meaning was intended to refer to an impossible action, akin to lifting oneself by one’s own hair.

As it turns out, that is in fact the case:

The origin of this descriptive phrase isn’t known. It refers of course to boots and their straps (laces) and to the imagined feat of a lifting oneself off the ground by pulling on one’s bootstraps. This impossible task is supposed to exemplify the achievement in getting out of a difficult situation by one’s own efforts.

So the stock phrase to refer to people somehow earning social mobility through hard work refers to an impossible act — perhaps indicating that the real path to wealth is to choose the right parents, for example.

December 3, 2008 - Posted by | boredom


  1. Speaking of hated phrases, this post really brings to a head the lie of social mobility.

    Comment by SEK | December 3, 2008

  2. Are you saying, Scott, that you hate it when people use that phrase incorrectly, in the way you just did, or that you simply hate the phrase?

    I don’t see it misused very often, I think.

    Comment by ben | December 3, 2008

  3. I think he might be pointing to the phrase’s, um, icky?origin.

    Comment by Will | December 4, 2008

  4. It comes, I think, from Rudolf Erich Raspe, Baron Munchhausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785) where the Baron confronted with a wide rive and no bridge to cross it lifts himself up by his hair and leaps over (his shoelaces or bootstraps in alternative versions of the tale).

    Comment by cloughie | December 4, 2008

  5. Will’s on it, ben: it’s not the use, it’s the ickiness.

    Comment by SEK | December 4, 2008

  6. What Cloughie said.

    I have been told that the Horatio Alger stories also do not describe the attainment of success via hard work, frugality, and talent. Mostly they describe honest, hardworking boys or young men who are noticed by a rich man who has them marry his daughter — really the old feudal patron-client patronage story. Cue “I’m a man you don’t meet every day” (Cait O’Riordan.)

    Comment by John Emerson | December 4, 2008

  7. When not using the attraction of the moon to fly (like Cyrano) I hoist myself across forbidding rivers via a succession of controlled explosions from petards beneath my elegantly appointed sedan chair.

    Comment by ehj2 | December 4, 2008

  8. I use the White Knight’s strategy of standing on my head.

    Comment by ben | December 4, 2008

  9. pejoration.

    the phrase went from signifying something impossible, to being a hyperbolic statement of incredible force of will, to the current meaning. that this is due to an ideological change about the possibility of pulling oneself up is clear; the question is whether we’ve had an actual change in this possibility as well.

    Comment by d | December 7, 2008

  10. That’s meliorization, innit?

    Comment by ben | December 8, 2008

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