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Bootstraps and Baron Munchausen

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April January 27, 2009 05:34 PM

My item on bootstraps in Sunday's column prompted a note from Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus, who researched the bootstrap idiom a few years ago, with a link to the discussion at the American Dialect Society listserv.

The earliest example Zimmer found (a quarter-century before mine) appeared in the Workingman's Advocate in 1834: "It is conjectured that Mr. Murphee will now be enabled to hand himself over the Cumberland river or a barn yard fence by the straps of his boots."

In addition, says Zimmer,

There was further discussion about the theory that the image of lifting oneself up by one's own bootstraps originated in the Baron von Münchhausen stories. But the closest the good Baron came to doing such a thing was lifting himself (and his horse) out of the mud by pulling on his own pigtail. That got conflated with the "bootstraps" figure of speech so that many now claim Münchhausen was the first bootstrapper.

So far, however, there's no sign that anyone has found an explicit reference to bootstraps in the various versions of the Munchausen tales.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column “The Word” since 1997. E-mail her at

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