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bootstraps

ladder
User fdecomite / Flickr / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

“Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” is a phrase that used to describe trying to do something that was nearly impossible. (Imagine, for a moment, trying to stand up by pulling on your own shoes. You’d look pretty silly.)

But somewhere along the way, it’s become short-hand for the kind of crowd-pleasing rags to riches stories found everywhere from movie screens to the evening news.

Hogan / flickr

"Up by your bootstraps," that ubiquitous phrase that has come to function basically as shorthand for the American Dream, first came onto the scene in 1834.  

Linguist Anne Curzan says at that point, it was basically an insult. It described somebody delusional enough to think they could defy the laws of physics and pull themselves up in the air by the very things anchoring them to the ground.