They pulled themselves up by their collective bootstraps

中国日报网 2014-09-05 13:06



They pulled themselves up by their collective bootstraps

Reader question:

Please explain this sentence, with “collective bootstraps” in particular: “The guys who made up Aerosmith pulled themselves up by their collective bootstraps and climbed to the top of the rock world again.”

My comments:

After suffering a setback, members of the Aerosmith music band worked their way back to the top of the rock and roll world – with a song or album dominating the pop charts one more time.

They were able to succeed again because the musicians banded together, obviously, putting their differences aside (for example), and worked hard and as a team.

Pulling themselves up by their collective bootstraps suggests that the team worked hard.

But first of all, the expression “pulling themselves up by their collective bootstraps” is not to be read literally.

To read it literally may result in the understanding (or misunderstanding rather) that all Aerosmith members wear heavy boots, the type that, say, mountain climbers wear in winter weather, the type of tough shoes with thick boot straps. No, that is not the case. Not all of them wear strong boots, certainly not in summer.

Pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, collectively or individually, merely indicates that they are making a great effort.

This expression is probably derived from the fact that it is hard to squeeze one’s feet into the heavy boots and lace the shoes up – the straps refer to the laces.

Whatever its origin, the expression doesn’t make any logical sense. There’s no way one can lift oneself up by lifting the bootstraps. One is able to life one’s feet up by the bootstraps, of course, but not one’s entire body. That’s impossible.

Anyways, I just want you to remember that the expression is not to be read literally. The expression itself, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps, is a commonplace enough phrase to learn and to use.

And use it in situations where one achieves or tries to achieve something by their own effort, relying on their own effort and resources instead of help from others.

Even though pulling oneself up by their bootstraps, or boot straps, is impossible and sound silly, people do seem to like it.

Perhaps people just like the fact that they’re at least making an effort instead of goofing around.

Perhaps making an effort looks better than nothing. Teachers, for example, sometimes awards pupils points for making an effort. Peter, you know, is never able to pronounce a certain word properly but the always teacher gives him a B any way for effort. Peter never stops trying – even though the boy sounds foolish every time he pronounces “g”, he says “d”.

Perhaps the teacher truly understands the saying that the fool who persists in his folly will become wise.

In short, people just like people who work hard, or seem to work hard.

Hence and therefore the world is full of people who are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps or telling others to do so.

And here are a few of many media examples of this idiom, American in origin:

1. In Detroit, year to date crime statistics for the period ending September 4, 2011, indicate that violent crime went down 10.49 percent in comparison with the same reporting period in 2010. This statistic contradicts the perception that increased rates of crime and unemployment go hand in hand in Detroit. Michigan State Representative Shanelle Jackson says, that a recent surge in shootings has jarred Detroit. “Unfortunately, we have not had a real decrease in crime here. Violence has soared in recent months.”

The overall numbers for violent crime may be down, but the City of Detroit indicates that the homicide rate is up 27 percent in comparison to last year. As a result Jackson, who represents a portion of Detroit, says that her constituents are likely to say that there is a need for greater police protection. “I think most people in my district would support stopping cars if the police had reasonable suspicion.” As a result of budget cuts, there may not be enough officers on Detroit’s streets to institute the large-scale preventative search measures that have been controversial in other cities.

“We can’t really have a conversation about violence and civil liberties with out a conversation on jobs and preventing foreclosure,” stated Jackson, who recently announced that she is running for U.S. Congress. Jackson says that the state government needs to focus on funding programs that address the high rates of unemployment and foreclosure in Michigan.

According to Jackson, the partisan political climate in the state’s capital has made addressing those issues difficult. “I’m working diligently to help people to prepare to work in this economy…. Under this current [Michigan] republican administration and legislature this is not the focus. The mentality is ‘people need to pull themselves up by their boot straps’ ”.

- Violent crime is down but at what cost?, September 21, 2011.

2. Three murder convicts who experienced bad childhoods yesterday received stiff sentences as a Supreme Court judge noted that their backgrounds were no excuse for crime.

Senior Supreme Court Justice Jon Isaacs refused to accept the turbulent childhoods of James Mombranche, 19; Rodney Johnson, 20 and Ricardo Brown, 24, contributed to their decision to rob a phone card vendor at his Domingo Heights apartment on February 28, 2011.

The robbery failed when Charles Chrysostome, 27, resisted but Mombranche blasted him in the head and back with a 9mm pistol, according to the evidence.

Mombranche, who was just 17 years old when the crime occurred, was sentenced at the court's pleasure for murder with a recommendation that his sentence be reviewed after 20 years. Johnson and Brown were each sentenced to 60 years for murder.

All of the convicts will serve 20-year concurrent sentences for the attempted armed robbery. The sentences take effect from February 23, 2012, the date of conviction.

In passing sentence, Isaacs said, “The court notes that each of you had a difficult upbringing, but poverty does not excuse crime.”

He referred to a former prime minister who “pulled himself up by his bootstraps” despite a financially disadvantaged upbringing.

- Bad childhood no excuse for crime, court says,, May 12, 2012.

3. Stand your ground, a former member of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet advised me when I told him I was about to interview the then former Prime Minister.

“She will respect you if you do that.”

“I have 40 minutes to find her soul,” I said. “You’ll make history if you do that,” he replied.

I didn’t make history but I did discover her Achilles’ heel. In all the interviews I have done for newspapers over the years, I cannot recall one with a more revelatory moment. It happened when I was preparing to take my leave of her. While I was putting away my tape recorder I mentioned a book I had read on leadership. As soon as I told her what it said, she turned the tables and began asking me questions. She wanted to know more. What was this book? Where could she get hold of it?

The more she showed interest, the more it became obvious she was still bewildered by her expulsion from Downing Street three years earlier. And, despite the passage of time, the wound it had inflicted on her was hurting. Not such an Iron Lady after all.

Our meeting at the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh got off to a cold start. Her handshake was cursory. She was unsmiling. The photographer posed her at the piano and asked her to crouch. “This is a strange position,” she muttered, frozen as if in mid-curtsey. “Yes,” I said, “the first man to whom you have bent your knee.”

Her stare was cold. I knew what President Francois Mitterrand of France meant when he said Mrs Thatcher had Marilyn Monroe’s lips but the eyes of Caligula.

As we sat down she realised the seat of her chair was too deep to allow her to support her back and rest her feet on the floor. “Why do people make chairs like this?” she asked. “For people like me with long legs,” I answered. And so we settled – or squared up – for our chat.

After 20 minutes I had managed to ask only two questions. We were halfway through our time and she was doing what she did best: dominating the interview. I had seen her do it often with television interviewers. I wasn’t faring any better. But as she talked about her childhood I realised people who defined her as having pulled herself up by her boot straps had missed the point.

Her father left school at 13 but during her childhood he was a person of stature in Grantham. He was a magistrate and mayor for a time. He was governor of several schools and was, according to Lady Thatcher: “The sort of man called upon to make impromptu speeches at the Rotary. Alf always had some thought to contribute.”

His daughter bathed in reflected glory. She hero-worshipped him but what a stickler. If her classmates were going out and she asked to join them: “My father would say: never do something just because other people are doing it. Never adopt their opinions just to go with the crowd. Make up your own mind what you want to do and then try to persuade others to your view.”

She learned that lesson. As she spoke I realised she was a corner shop princess. She was never one of the people. She was a cut above the neighbours – separated from her schoolmates, elevated above her mother and sister. Each week she and Alf went to the library to select biographies for the two of them – and a novel for her mother.

Her father, she said, told her that popularity didn’t matter. What mattered was that people respected you. I said my own father would have agreed and she replied, “and although we are from different backgrounds”.

There it was, that class consciousness she’d carried right through her premiership. In her memoir, The Downing Street Years, she attributed her downfall to the grandees of the Tory Party. Clearly she thought I had sprung from them too. This time I managed to interject that Douglas Home was my married name and my background was more like hers. Instantly she was friendlier. She was now engaged and co-operative.

I asked how she had emerged from a background that was echoed millions of time across the country to be talked about in the same breath as Elizabeth I of England? What made Margaret Thatcher different?

“Passion,” she said. So that was it. A brew of passion, her alderman father’s dictum of self-reliance and monetarism – and Thatcherism was born.

Why did Thatcherism fail in Scotland? I asked. “Thatcherism in its economic sense took off here,” she insisted. “Look at the city of Glasgow. Look at the transformation. It did not take off in the political sense. When we came into office 50% of families lived in state or local authority-owned houses. It was a much bigger turnaround than elsewhere.”

My time was up. My 40 minutes had over-run and I was no closer to her soul. Then I mentioned having read a sociology book which talked of the 13 characteristics of leadership. I said I thought of her when I saw the final characteristic was to be the scapegoat.

“Was to what?” She was suddenly at full alert.

“And what was the book? Really? And where did you read this?”

She asked me to give the details to her press secretary. It was three years since she had been ousted but she wanted the book.

I had hit a nerve. The people had never rejected her, she said. She wasn’t voted out by the public. Clearly she was mystified by what had happened to her after winning three elections – and wounded.

By mentioning that sacrifice was an aspect of leadership had I provided her with a possible answer to her party’s rejection of her?

I would be lying if I said I liked Margaret Thatcher by the time I left her. But Alderman Roberts would have been pleased for, though I didn’t agree with her, I certainly respected her.

My final question was to ask if she had compassion for those unable to rise to opportunity. She said: “There are always some we have got to pick up and if you don't do it through education and through the voluntary work of the community ... we won’t retrieve the next generation.”

Through the voluntary work of the community, that sounds suspiciously like the Big Society. Margaret Thatcher died yesterday. But it seems her legacy lives on.

- The day I found a chink in the Iron Lady’s armour, by Collette Douglas Home, HeraldScotland, April 9, 2013.




About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.



Living wage?

Wear and tear?

Faux pas?

Grasping at straws?

Character assassination?


(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)


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