Bootstraps and Bootstrapping

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In the literal sense, bootstrap is a loop attached at the top back of a boot to make it easier for the wearer to pull on the boot–if, that is, he is sitting down. On a woman’s boot–in the days when women wore skirts to ride, the bootstrap looped round the boot to hold down the lady’s skirt.

In the 19th century the expression “to lift oneself by one’s bootstraps” was used as an expression of the impossible–like pigs flying, or hell freezing over.

Early in the 20th century, the expression gained a popular new meaning: “to achieve financial independence by one’s own unaided efforts.” The epitome of this extraordinary accomplishment of the impossible feat of lifting oneself by the bootstraps was the Horatio Alger hero who goes from rags to riches aided by nothing more than honesty and hard work.

Today’s politicians are especially fond of the metaphor:

Despite the fact that Democrats and Republicans see themselves as having competing views about America, the theme of bootstrapping, or lifting oneself up the social and economic ladder through individual effort, hard work and personal responsibility, have taken center stage for both parties. They all either bootstrapped themselves up the economic ladder or benefitted from the bootstrapping of their parents and grandparents.–Noliwe M. Rooks, Time Ideas, Sept. 7, 2012.

Politicians, journalists, news commentators, social reformers, and even athletic coaches seem to find in the expression an irresistible metaphor, although not everyone who uses the term sees it as positive, or even as meaning the same thing.

Now, in Texas, we believe in the rugged individual. Texas may be the one place where people actually still have bootstraps, and we expect folks to pull themselves up by them.–Julian Castro, Sept. 4, 2012

The Poor have no Boostraps to pull up. –Tom Whitby

As the U.S. auto industry pulls itself up by its bootstraps, the gloves are starting to come off.–book review

So we’ll just have to regroup, pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and get ready for Tuesday and North Carolina.”–football coach

But tomorrow’s a new day, the sun will probably come up and we’ve got to pull up our bootstraps and get going.”–hockey coach

The high cost of gas is just one thing forcing the nation’s school districts to tighten the bootstraps this year. –journalist writing about education

In addition to its social applications, the word bootstrapping has taken on new meanings as occupational jargon.

In computing, bootstrapping is “the procedure of using a fixed sequence of instructions to initiate the loading of further instructions and ultimately of a complete program (esp. the operating system).” It is this type of “bootstrapping” that gives us the verb “to boot,” in the sense of turning on a computer. The idea is that the first program pulls up all the others.

In statistics, bootstrapping is a type of resampling in which a small sample is repeated numerous times in order to build up data.

As happens with all overworked expressions, the original wording tends to break down. One commenter says he heard the following on CNN twice in one week: “[He needs to] pull up his boot straps.”

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4 thoughts on “Bootstraps and Bootstrapping”

  1. A “journalist” wants them to “tighten their bootstraps”. A “book review” sees them pulling up their bootstraps as the gloves come off. This reminds me of a local politician who warned us: “That’s a box of pandoras we don’t want to get into”. The athletic coaches make a better showing than the journalist or the book reviewer do. That says it all. Some people should simply not be allowed to use metaphors without safety gear and a spotter.

    Meanwhile, the whole original point– that it is impossible, not admirable– to pull up oneself by one’s bootstraps is entirely lost.

  2. Before reading this, I’d never known the actual meaning of the saying, BUT—was familiar with the name “Bootstrap Bill” 😉

  3. The explanation of “booting” or “bootstrapping” in a digital computer has a completely-different explanation (in the history of computers) from what was given above. I won’t explain here because you probably would not understand it.

    To understand the origins of such words and phrases, you have to go back all the way to the 1950s or even the 1940s. Some explanation that dates back just to the 1980s (like the above) simply will not cut it.

  4. That is interesting, Dale. But I would bet money that the cited usages in computer jargon also spring from a misunderstanding of what the original metaphor means.

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