pull oneself up by one's bootstraps

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Early 19th century US; attested 1834. In original use, often used to refer to pulling oneself over a fence, and implying that someone is attempting or has claimed some ludicrously far-fetched or impossible task. Presumably a variant on a traditional tall tale, as elaborated below. The shift in sense to a possible task appears to have developed in the early 20th century, and the use of the phrase to mean “a ludicrous task” continued into the 1920s.

Widely attributed since at least 1901 to The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, (1781) by Rudolf Erich Raspe, where the eponymous Baron pulls himself out of a swamp by his own pigtail, though not by his bootstraps. The Adventures is primarily a collection of centuries-old tall tales, however, and using bootstraps may have arisen as a variant on the same theme.


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pull oneself up by one's bootstraps (third-person singular simple present pulls oneself up by one's bootstraps, present participle pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps, simple past and past participle pulled oneself up by one's bootstraps)

  1. (idiomatic) To begin an enterprise or recover from a setback without any outside help; to succeed only by one's own efforts or abilities.
    We can't get a loan, so we'll just have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.
    • 1834 Oct. 4, Workingman's Advocate, p. 1:
      It is conjectured that Mr. Murphee will now be enabled to hand himself over the Cumberland river or a barn yard fence by the straps of his boots.
    • 1941, George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn:
      Up to a point, civilization can lift itself up by its boot-tags. However unjustly society is organized, certain technical advances are bound to benefit the whole community, because certain kinds of goods are necessarily held in common.

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