We’ve all probably heard the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” at some point in our lives. This common phrase has been a tried and true saying in American discourse since the 19th century, but what does it actually mean? The image connected with this saying – literally pulling yourself up by your bootstraps – is something that’s clearly impossible, and early usage of the saying reflected this. We can see in newspapers that it was originally used to refer to an impossible task or goal, but how did that meaning shift to the one we know today? This blog will look at the changing meaning of a classic saying.
The history is somewhat murky but it seems clear that the phrase originated in the early to mid 19th century. There was little ambiguity surrounding the meaning, and it was pretty well-understood in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to express the idea that something was impossible.
Beginning in the 1920s, however, the term’s usage began to shift and it was used to also refer to accomplishing something through sheer hard work. During this decade the term was often used in both ways, sometimes by the same person or publication, and it was only through the specific context that the reader could tell which meaning was intended.
As America put the Great Depression behind it the transformation of the saying seems to have been complete. The phrase was said in earnest now, and served as praise not derision. Interestingly, the phrase’s popularity was not dimmed by the changing of meaning, but it continued to be well-used. The underlying action behind the saying had not become doable – although one circus performer in the 1930s was supposedly able to lift himself by his bootstraps as part of his act – but the meaning had nevertheless undergone a complete 180 degree shift.
The saying is only used today to celebrate self-reliance and hard work, and saying that someone has pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps is high praise in modern America. Nowadays the meaning of this phrase is well-understood and quite concrete but, as with all language, the future is always subject to change!