TIL “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” originated as an idiom to describe a ludicrously far-fetched or impossible task

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People not understanding the meaning of this idiom always makes me think of the similar misunderstanding of “a few bad apples”. People will often dismiss the harmful actions of people belonging to certain groups as “just a few bad apples,” to indicate that not every member of that group is bad. What they fail to realize is the full idiom is “a bad apple spoils the bunch,” meaning if those apples (people) are allowed to stay they will eventually turn the rest rotten. It’s not meant to be dismissive, it’s meant as a warning to take action and remove them.


Etymologist Barry Popik and linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer have cited an American newspaper snippet from Sept. 30, 1834 as the earliest published reference to lifting oneself up by one’s bootstraps. A month earlier, a man named Nimrod Murphree announced in the Nashville Banner that he had “discovered perpetual motion.” The Mobile Advertiser picked up this tidbit and published it with a snarky response ridiculing his claim: “Probably Mr. Murphree has succeeded in handing himself over the Cumberland river, or a barn yard fence, by the straps of his boots.” >“Bootstraps were a typical feature of boots that you could pull on in the act of putting your boots on, but of course bootstraps wouldn’t actually help you pull yourself over anything,” Zimmer told HuffPost. “If you pulled on them, it would be physically impossible to get yourself over a fence. The original imagery was something very ludicrous, as opposed to what we mean by it today of being a self-made man.” It also brings to mind the image of someone walking around, bent over and grunting vigorously.


It’s funny what people will say, without realizing how stupid it sounds, with all of the sincerity of the world.


This is also, I believe, why starting up a computer is referred to as “booting”: as it loads its simplest systems and uses those to load increasingly complex systems until it’s fully operational, it’s metaphorically pulling itself up by its own bootstraps.


I think it still is. Just lots of people don’t realize how impossible the shit people are supposed to be bootstrappy about really is.