How the ‘bootstrap’ idiom became a cultural ideal

What's in a phrase? How "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" went from describing an absurd, impossible feat to an American ideal.

Staff

A functional accessory looms large in the American cultural imagination: the bootstrap. Pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps involves the idea that a person can succeed “without help from other people, as a result of one’s own hard work,” as Merriam-Webster defines it.

It is ironic that this metaphor is so widely used to represent the American dream of social and economic mobility through self-reliance, since the action required is physically impossible. When it was first used in the 19th century, the saying made more sense – it described an absurd, impossible feat.

How did bootstrap-pulling go from a ridiculous idea to an American ideal? 

Bootstraps are handles or a ribbon attached to the top of a boot to help the wearer pull it on. Linguist Ben Zimmer has traced the idiom back to an 1834 newspaper, in which one Mr. Murphee is satirically described as being “enabled to hand himself over the Cumberland river or a barn yard fence by the straps of his boots.” It appears throughout the 19th century, often in the company of other colorful metaphors for ludicrous impossibilities, such as “sitting in a wheelbarrow and trying to wheel yourself” and “getting rich by taking money from one pocket and putting it in another.”

In the early 20th century, hyperbolic newspapers declared that some people were indeed able to do the impossible and raise themselves by bootstraps alone. A 1908 journal asserted, “No one ever succeeded in elevating himself into prominence by pulling on his own bootstraps as successfully as ...” well, it’s William Randolph Hearst, who isn’t a great example. But less-privileged people could do it, too, though it was difficult – a journalist wrote in 1918 that “the ability of the worker to pull himself up by his own bootstraps” is “a miracle.”  

By the mid-20th century, bootstrapping had become part of our national narrative, seen not as a miracle but as the almost inevitable result of hard work. Today, the idiom is caught up in political partisanship: Liberals tend to distrust the idea while conservatives celebrate it. 

There is one sphere in which bootstrapping operates without partisanship – computer science. In the 1960s, engineers used what they called a bootstrap loader to get software onto a computer. A person would toggle switches on the machine to enter a simple program. This loader would be able to read a more complex program, which would read an even more complex one, and so on. As The New Hacker’s Dictionary sums up, “Thus, in successive steps, the computer ‘pulled itself up by the bootstraps’ to a useful operating state.”

Today, though the days of toggling switches are gone, we still refer to starting a computer as booting it up.

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