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The meaning and origin of the expression: Pull yourself up by your bootstraps

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Pull yourself up by your bootstraps

Meaning

Improve your situation by your own efforts.

Origin

The origin of this descriptive phrase isn't known. It refers of course to boots and their straps (laces) and to the imagined feat of a lifting oneself off the ground by pulling on one's bootstraps. This impossible task is supposed to exemplify the achievement in getting out of a difficult situation by one's own efforts.

It was known by the early 20th century. James Joyce alluded to it in Ulysses, 1922:

"There were others who had forced their way to the top from the lowest rung by the aid of their bootstraps."

A more explicit use of the phrase comes a little later, from Kunitz & Haycraft's British Authors of the 19th Century:

"A poet who lifted himself by his own boot-straps from an obscure versifier to the ranks of real poetry."

Some early computers used a process called bootstrapping which alludes to this phrase. This involved loading a small amount of code which was then used to progressively load more complex code until the machine was ready for use. This led to the use of the term 'booting' to mean starting up a computer. An early citation of this in print comes from the Proceedings of the institute of radio engineers (IRE), 1953:

A technique sometimes called the ‘bootstrap technique’…Pushing the load button... causes one full word to be loaded into a memory address previously set up... on the operator's panel, after which the program control is directed to that memory address and the computer starts automatically.

An electrical engineer correspondent of mine says that bootstrap was used with the same meaning as above to early radio circuits, before the computer era, but I have no documentary evidence to support that assertion.