bootstrap / boot up

A self-made person is one who lifts or pulls oneself up by one’s bootstraps. The phrase is used unironically nowadays, despite the fact that the laws of physics make it impossible for one actually lift oneself by one’s bootstraps. The phrase was originally ironic, recognizing that such a feat is impossible, but as the myth of the self-made man grew (and it is a myth; no one succeeds in life without help), the phrase became unironic in its application.

First though, what is a bootstrap? It is quite simply a loop at the top back of the boot used to help pulling the boot on.

The earliest use of the metaphor underlying the familiar phrase that I know of is from an 1830 physics text by John Lee Comstock, A System of Natural Philosophy:

The man undertook to make a fair wind for his pleasure boat, to be used whenever he wished to sail. He fixed an immense bellows in the stern of the boat, not doubting but the wind from it would carry him along. [...] Had the sails received the whole force of the wind from the bellows, the boat would not have moved at all, for then, action and re-action would have been exactly equal, and it would have been like a man’s attempting to raise himself over a fence by the straps of his boots.

The phrase as we know it appears a few years later in another of Comstock’s texts, the 1838 Youth’s Book of Natural Philosophy. This is also the first use of the word bootstrap that I’m aware of. (I am sure that earlier uses of the word exist.):

Had this man made, and applied the experiment of attempting to raise himself into the air by pulling at his boot-straps, he would have saved himself the expense of building such a boat.

It also appears in the pages of the New York Daily Tribune on 4 February 1861:

The legislation would be as hopeless as the attempt of a man to lift himself by his boot-straps.

The phrase appears numerous times in various American newspapers in the latter half of the twentieth century, all of them acknowledging the fruitlessness of the task.

The earliest apparently unironic use of the metaphor that I know of is from the Eumaeus episode of James Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses—although given that it’s Joyce, he may have meant it ironically, too:

However, reverting to the original, there were on the other hand others who had forced their way to the top from the lowest rung by the aid of their bootstraps. Sheer force of natural genius, that.

But a few years later, it is definitively used unironically. This use is also the first known use of the words bootstrapper and bootstrapping. From the Chicago Daily Tribune of 19 October 1927

Now everyone has heard of the American bootlegger. But the bootstrapper is an even greater national figure, just as the feat of “lifting oneself by one’s bootstraps” is an almost entirely American accomplishment. […] This is all right so long as there is plenty of room for the first rate man who has no capacity for bootstrapping and so long as there is no sudden crisis.

The term enters the world of electrical engineering in the 1940s. From the 1946 volume of the Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers:

The “Bootstrap” Circuit […] is much used for generating a linear rise of voltage with time, for time-base and other purposes. […] It is called a “bootstrap” circuit because the potential at A is apparently being “pulled up by its own bootstraps.”

And in the 1950s, the phrase bootstrap technique began to be used in computing to refer to a self-executing program. From the 1953 volume of the Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers:

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.

By 1980, the verb to boot was in use in computing. From M. E. Sloan’s 1980 Introduction to Minicomputers & Microcomputers:

We turn the power knob to on, and depress the control and boot switches. We call this procedure booting the system. […] The computer is now in the machine language mode, in which machine language programs can be entered and run.

It is often claimed that lifting oneself up by one’s bootstraps originates with the R. E. Raspe’s 1785 novel Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, but neither the phrase nor anything like it appears in that work. However, Gottfried August Bürger, in his 1786 translation of the novel into German, Wunderbare Reisen zu Wasser und Lande, Feldzüge und Lustige Abentheuer des Freyherrn von Münchhausen, adds a tale in which the baron pulls himself and his horse out of a muddy swamp by his own hair. Bürger’s metaphor has the same meaning as the American phrase, but there are no bootstraps involved.


Comstock, J. L. A System of Natural Philosophy, Hartford: D. F. Robinson, 1830, 40.

Comstock, J. L. Youth’s Book of Natural Philosophy, Hartford: Reed and Barber, 1838, 45.

“Editorial of the Day: The Bootstrapper.” Chicago Daily Tribune, 19 Oct 1927, 10.

Goranson, Stephen, “Re: [ADS-L] Bootstrap antedating,” ADS-L, 9 July 2019.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. bootstrap, n., bootstrap, v., and boot, v.4.

“The National Observer.” New York Daily Tribune, 4 Feb 1861, 4.

Waigl, Chris. “figurative ‘bootstraps’ (1834).” ADS-L, 18 Aug 2005.

[Discuss this post]

Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2020, by David Wilton