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Where does the phrase "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" actually come from?

Apr 7, 2015

Credit Hogan / flickr

If there is one phrase you hear ad nauseam as a reporter who covers poverty, it is definitely some variant of "pull yourself up by your bootstraps." 

Of course it's used as part of the origin story to explain how any number of families from humble beginnings now experience success several generations later. (If it was possible to search facebook comments on State of Opportunity stories by the keyword "bootstraps" the stress would surely cause my laptop to shake and smoke from its USB ports.) 

More interestingly, it's used on both sides of the economic divide to express deep and honest frustration.

People with financial means wonder why low-income people can't "pull themselves up by their bootstraps." At the same time, people struggling to make ends meet are understandably bothered by what they see (often accurately) as judgment, if they haven't yet managed to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps." 

We've been working on a special to air next week about the emotional distance between people living in low-income communities and those who do not. In almost every interview, the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" phrase came up-organically. 

So, we're calling the show "Up By Your Bootstraps." To kick it off, Jennifer White interviewed Michigan Radio's go-to language expert Anne Curzan.  Now you, dear web reader, can listen to it a full week before it airs. 

So where did that bootstraps phrase come from?

It's was a total surprise to me to find out it used to be an insult. It was used to describe people who were basically delusional. It's not something we think about much, but of course pulling yourself up by straps attached to your own feet is physically impossible. Where did we start to use this phrase in a way that was aspirational, and then move to it being a sort of cultural demand? 

Listen to short interview here to find out: