Pull Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps

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.

Midland Journal, 1/24/1930. This article gives a thorough explanation for the origin and use of the phrase, although by the time it was written the usage had begun to change.
Daily Alaska Empire, 7/26/1927. An editorial advocating racial equality through economic advancement compared efforts to win equality for African-Americans at the ballot box to pulling on one’s bootstraps.
Somerset Herald, 7/10/1878. This rather strange article from the 19th century uses the expression to illustrate the impossibility of prohibition in the United States. It may have seemed impossible at the time, but anti-saloon parties, and prohibition groups actually gained ascendancy in the early 20th century and banned alcohol. To the author’s credit, however, and perhaps their point, prohibition was never very well enforced in the United States and the attempts to enforce it were a constant losing battle for the government.

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.

The Bismark Tribune, 8/30/1934. The saying about lifting bootstraps was used here to demonstrate something impossible, as a candidate for Congress used it to extol the importance of assistance from the Federal Government. The Dust Bowl hit North Dakota especially hard and the efforts to improve the productivity of the land through river diversion and the actions of the Civilian Conservation Corps were seen as especially important.
Alaska Daily Empire, 2/28/1924. This article pokes fun at congressmen and includes the saying “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” in tandem with several other expressions of impossible things.
Nonpartisan Leader, 1/24/1921. This union paper’s cartoon nicely illustrated the the original meaning of the phrase.

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.

Alaska Daily Empire, 11/4/1921. This article uses the original meaning of the phrase but inadvertently hints at the later definition.
Imperial Valley Press, 11/23/1929. This usage of the phrase took place shortly after the Wall Street crash of 1929 that was the opening blow of the Great Depression. The article explained that the outlook was good and the setting ripe for businesses to be aggressive and stage a comeback from the damage of the stock market crash.
Nome Daily Nugget, 9/17/1936. This article, written several years after a fire devastated the city of Nome, uses the phrase’s later definition to illustrate the city’s resilience and the efforts of its people to rebuild and overcome.

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.

Nome Nugget, 1/12/1959. This article, written during the Cold War, uses the saying about pulling bootstraps in a positive way to illustrate that people can pull themselves away from the brink of war by devoting themselves to other pursuits.
Nome Nugget, 9/25/1950. This article uses the idiom to illustrate the work and perseverance in creating great universities in Alaska.

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!

Written by Christopher Russell


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