Friday, November 19, 2010

you should pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, darn it!

“I was getting used to just pulling up my bootstraps (whatever that means) and taking care of the task at hand …”

A friend at work asked me about idioms. It reminded me of the other workmate who asked me what slang was. In neither case was I able to offer a great definition. For idiom I like this from Wikipedia, “an expression, word, or phrase whose sense means something different from what the words literally imply.” Although I would change that “imply” to “describe.” The point of saying you should “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” isn’t to say anything about boots or literally getting up off the floor by tugging on them but (as has it) “to exemplify the achievement in getting out of a difficult situation by [your] own efforts.” Nobody needed to give me a hand up, I was able to get off the floor completely through my own efforts!

Is it possible to get yourself up off the floor by pulling at your bootstraps, shoelaces, nose, penis, or hair? Well. Maybe. One of the origins of the metaphor, I suspect, was the respect it gave to the inherent difficulty. If you could do it, you were due a lot of credit. But metaphors are pernicious. Unlike pulling yourself up by bootstraps metaphors are easy. You can throw them at people, cover up reasoned arguments with them, and create seductive irrelevancies. Too often we argue about the metaphor rather than the problem. This redounds to the benefit of the dishonest debater.

The quote that heads my post is ripped from Mark Oliver Everett’s memoir Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Everett is the creative force behind EELS, a rock band. He’s no dummy but it’s weird he doesn’t even get the idiom right. In this age of easy internet research – I googled “bootstraps” and found the explanation in under five seconds – getting shit wrong should be harder.

No comments: