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 to The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, (1781) by Rudolf Erich Raspe, where the eponymous Baron pulls himself out of a swamp by his hair (specifically, his pigtail), though not by his bootstraps; misattribution dates to US, 1901. The Adventures is primarily a collection of traditional (centuries-old) tall tales; using bootstraps presumably arose as a variant on the same tall tale, or independently.


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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, Workingman’s Advocate, 4 Oct. 1/1:
      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.


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