There’s this saying you’ll hear a lot if you follow politics: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” What we think it means is to come up from nothing to become successful. We hear it all the time to describe supposedly self-made people like Jeff Bezos or Donald Trump. Politicians like Mitch McConnell use it to justify preventing new social safety net programs, raising the minimum wage, gutting existing programs, or making these programs more difficult to access.
But, like the myth that most of our most successful citizens are actually self-made, that phrase doesn’t quite reflect reality.
Do me a favor before we continue. Put on your shoes, sit on the floor, and try it. Try to lift yourself using your shoelaces or the tongue of your shoe. I’ll wait.
*Makes a nice cup o’ tea while waiting.*
Did it work? No? You actually pulled a muscle? I’ll be hearing from your lawyer?
Well, this didn’t go as planned. Regardless, let’s push on.
As you likely realize at this point, the phrase “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is a load of horseshit. And it’s etymology shows a very different intent behind its meaning. The phrase seems to have originated in an 1834 newspaper article discussing a man who claimed to have created a perpetual motion machine–a famously impossible thing to do. In reference to this invention, the author of the article wrote that the inventor may have claimed to be able to lift himself “… over the Cumberland river or a barn yard fence by the straps of his boots.” In short, the original meaning of the phrase was sarcastic and used to tell someone they were full of shit.
The phrase was used sarcastically throughout the early 20th century. It’s unclear when the phrase began to shift toward a more positive interpretation, but by the 1970s it was an accepted part of the lexicon for “self-made men.”
There is a lot to be said for the way language evolves. Especially how idioms can switch meanings (as this article on the history of the phrase covers). But it’s worth knowing the history of certain popular phrases, and understanding their intended use. It can illuminate the veracity of rhetoric, which brings me back to its use in politics. When trying to spin something, politicians reach into the rhetoric grab-bag for anything they think sounds good, sounds “down home,” and illustrates their point. They may or may not know or care what the intended meaning was, which can pervert and then eventually subvert a phrase. We should all view these types of idioms skeptically.
And next time you hear someone say others should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” give them an etymology lesson and then tell them to fuck off.