Saturday, May 8, 2010

Pulling Yourself Up By Your Bootstraps

I guess I've always considered myself a "by the bootstraps" type of person. As it turns out, though, I may as well consider myself a cannonball-riding type of person or an Alexander the Great-defeating type of person.

"By the bootstraps" is such a ubiquitous phrase in modern American culture that one never pauses to consider what it actually means. "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps"? Really? It seems physically impossible. Which is exactly why the origin of the phrase is linked to the German folk hero Baron Münchhausen--he who used cannonballs as a method of transportation and bested Alexander the Great, in addition to visting the moon (once on purpose and once by accident). Before "by the bootstraps" was synonymous with good old fashioned American gumption, it was a phrase used to define something as absurdly impossible.

Much like Münchhausen's greatest exploits, the history of "by the bootstraps" is disputed. It has been commmonly held that the phrase originated in a scene from The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen in which the industrious baron pulls himself out of a swamp by using his bootstraps. The only problem is that the earliest German versions of the book have the baron using his ponytail, not his bootstraps, to escape the swamp. Many scholars now believe that the phrase is, fittingly, an American creation and some link its origin to a folk hero who's sort of the American Münchhausen--Davy Crocket. Instead of a swamp, it's held that Crocket pulled himself over a fence by his bootstraps and it's likely that "by the bootstraps" became part of the Münchhausen story through repeated English translations. Whatever the case, this myth-building flourish came to be used throughout the 19th century as an example of a ridiculously impossible task, such as it appeared in an 1862 Chicago Tribune article: "The hopeful individual who expects to raise a weight vastly beyond his strength, belongs to the same class of fools with great expectations, as he who promises to lift himself by his boot straps." As Ben Zimmer noted in a recent discussion of the American Dialect Society, "The shift in the metaphor's sense to suggest a *possible* task doesn't seem to have occurred until the early 20th century."

In 1922, the Oxford English Dictionary defined the figurative sense of "bootstrap" as "to raise or better oneself by one's own unaided efforts" and quoted a passage from James Joyce's Ulysses. Joyce writes about those "who had forced their way to the top from the lowest rung by the aid of their bootstraps." Here, Joyce presents "bootstraps" in the new, 20th century sense of the phrase but he's also playing with its multiple layers of meaning (I mean, it is Ulysses). In this passage, Joyce uses two common metaphors for social advancement--the ladder and the bootstrap--and in tandem they work to show one's advancement both by and because of the use of bootstraps. Oftentimes one advances socially not by simply overcoming an obstacle through individual will but by exploiting this original achievement to accelerate his/her continued advancement. In this way, "bootstrap" retains a connection to its mythic roots.

"American mythology fits all its greats with bootstraps," Alexander Ewing wrote in a recent essay for Intelligent Life. "Abraham Lincoln came from a backwoods farm, and some like to imagine Jefferson and Washington tilling the Virginia soil. Bootstrappers built steel mills in Pennsylvania, cars in Detroit and computers in Silicon Valley." Nowhere is the bootstrap mythology more prominent than in American politics, where candidates regularly trade on their humble origin stories to climb the ranks of government.

Covering the 2004 Democratic National Convention, "The Daily Show" poked fun at the bootstrap story one-upmanship of the speakers. Then-junior Illinois Senator Barack Obama was the clear winner as he described how his father "grew up herding goats." For some insight on the political posturing, Jon Stewart turned to Stephen Colbert, then the Chief Political Analyst for "The Daily Show." Colbert declared, "I believe in the promise of America, that I, the son of a turd miner, the grandson of a goat ball-licker, could one day leave those worthless hicks behind while still using their story to enhance my own credibility."

Looking for a job after college, I added a few lines to the end of my resume to illustrate my bootstrap mentality. It included this boast: "I have been constantly employed at a long list of diverse jobs since I was 15. I have laid asphalt, sold orthopedic shoes, held almost every restaurant position, worked as mover, a receptionist, a janitor, a tutor, and even an assistant to a Zamboni operator." In an interview at a production company, the producer chuckled about the Zamboni job. He looked down at my resume and said, "Yeah, that's a good line. You should keep that." Here's the truth: during high school, I once had a job at a local rec center. On four, maybe five occasions, I helped the Zamboni driver shovel snow off the edge of the hockey rink. I got the job at the production company, though.


  1. you tell a colorful tale, andy!

    this is fascinating! i think american society still has a strong sense of nostalgia and a desire to be connected to "the american dream," especially as the disconnect between the older generation of labor, the "working class," and today's young upstarts grows deeper...

    this may interest you?