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Let’s say you are struggling to get by and you go to a friend for advice. Instead of receiving any tips, you are greeted with, “Well, you need to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” This is a non-helpful and fairly nonsensical phrase, like “You can fly if you just hold your feet off the ground.” Why did such a phrase come to mean succeeding by your own efforts?
In the tall tales of Baron Munchausen’s Adventures (which several different versions have been published since the late 18th century), Baron Munchausen decides to ride his horse across a swamp. The mire soon became too thick and he was stuck. In order to escape without drowning, the fabled Baron grabbed his own hair, and lifted both himself and his horse out. Later retellings of the legend modified it to involve bootstraps.
Well into the 1950s, the phrase was being used to describe a ridiculous task; a task that would be impossible to overcome on one’s own. In the 1980s, the term’s use went up and somewhere along the line it changed. Just like the word “literally” has come to mean “figuratively,” an idiom meaning the impossible has come to mean merely difficult. Why the term changed is unknown, but an early example has been cited by Oxford English Dictionary:
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.
Even with examples, however, it remains that we won’t find the reason for the transition. It was likely used in a personal way to describe overcoming a great difficulty. We will not be able pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, but the idiom has certainly lost that meaning today.
Music: “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” by Louis Armstrong