When did "pull oneself by one's bootstraps" flip meaning ?

I know the origin of that saying - it’s from the tall tales of the Baron of Munchausen and meant to be silly, to be an impossible solution, much like crossing a battlefield (and back) by riding a cannonball. And indeed it was used as such in discourse back then - politicians were accusing their opponents of telling other people to pull etc etc to mean “my opponent’s proposed solutions are bullshit”.
But these days, at least among the US right wing, the meaning has flipped entirely - the poor are “supposed” to pull themselves up and out of poverty by pulling on their metaphorical bootstraps (an act that, I feel moved to remind people, is physically impossible). So who flipped it first and when ? And why did that idiocy spread, or why don’t people keep reminding the chucklefucks using that cliché that they should try it themselves (if they want to land on their ass) ?

(BTW, another saying/pet peeve of mine that’s been flipped is “bad apples”. “Yes these people demonstrably did wrong, but it’s just a few bad apples”. Yes, idiot, it’s that. And the saying is “A few bad apples SPOIL THE WHOLE BUNCH”. Because they teach other apples, and taint all other apples by association. There’s no such thing as “just a few bad apples”. End of pointless ranting against the descriptivist tide.)

Just a guess here, but probably about the time that “bootstrapping” began to be used as a computer term (and later shortened to just “booting up”).
ETA: as for the apples thing, you can probably blame the Osmonds.

Is that really true?

As for the computing/technical sense (“to make use of existing resources or capabilities to raise (oneself) to a new situation or state; to modify or improve by making use of what is already present”), the OED has quotations dating from the 1950s, so probably at least 20th century.

I think you’ve got the attribution and the timing of any shift in meaning quite wrong.

The phrase ismis-attributed to Munchausen, who pulled himself out of a swamp by his hair, not his bootstraps. The shift in meaning to lifting oneself up by one’s own efforts, without outside help, had occurred by 1922, when James Joyce used it in this sense in Ulysses. Google n-gram viewer shows the word bootstraps was barely used before 1900.

Robert Heinlein used it in this sense as the title of his 1941 novella By His Bootstraps.

The use of the term in computing also comes from this sense.

This is the sense I’ve always understood the phrase. This shift in meaning occurred almost a century ago, not recently.

When I was in college, around 1974, “bootstrapping” was used by my professor to refer to writing a compiler in the compiled language itself. It seems that this usage isn’t very common any more. I’ve always understood both this sense and the more common usage referring to loading code on a newly powered up computer, to be references to the mythical process of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps because in all three there is a normal situation where one uses the support of X to do Y, and then a new case is presented where X is missing and Y is still done.

From etymonline.com

Even earlier than Joyce, apparently.

A few bad apples is an idiom. Idioms do not need to be grammatically or logically true, and that’s always been the case. Nothing whatsoever to do with modern descriptivism.

I just want to add a sort of ancillary note about the use of “bootstrap” in computing, additional to the etymological information that several posters have already provided. It’s most commonly used in the context of starting up an operating system, but it actually reflects a much more general concept of starting or building something bigger out of the enabling capabilities of more primitive components, which is such a powerful idea in computer science that it’s practically the Holy Grail.

A very primitive example in the early days of paper tape based computers was the initial bootstrap loader. There was no disk and no OS, so if you wanted to run a program, it had to be loaded from paper tape, which required the computer to run a loader. But a loader was a relatively big program and it wasn’t feasible either to keep it in memory or to keep entering it in through the console switches. So the solution was a bootstrap loader: a very inefficient but small and simple loader that could be entered through the switches as less than a dozen instructions, whose only job was to read in the paper tape of the REAL loader.

An elegant example of functional bootstrapping was the development of an early LISP compiler. LISP was a sophisticated high-level language designed with a particular view to AI applications, and due to the difficulty of writing a compiler for it, it was implemented as an interpreter instead – very much slower, but much easier to implement. But since the goals of LISP made it a good language for symbol manipulation – which is the core of what a compiler does – the LISP team wrote a LISP compiler … in LISP. It was big and of course very slow under the LISP interpreter, so the first thing the team did was had the compiler compile itself! And voila – a fast machine-language LISP compiler, via bootstrap magic! Since then one of the meanings of “bootstrapping” to mean self-compiling compilers has become one of its specialized common meanings. More generally, it means what I indicated above.

But Kobal is right about the apples thing–clearly the meaning of the phrase has inverted, and in such a way that it now makes no sense. A few bad (rotting/rotten) apples really WILL spoil other apples, which is why the phrase arose to suggest that contamination of whatever sort easily spreads. The current usage suggests the opposite, but bad apples continue in reality to spoil other apples.

Heinlein may very well have been playing off the original meaning, not using the newer meaning. After all, the hero pulls himself by his bootstraps (metaphorically) only by use of a time machine - and it’s not particularly useful advice to tell someone to get ahead by getting a time machine.

I blame Donny Osmond. The song “One Bad Apple” was released in 1970. It contained the lines “One bad apple don’t spoil/The whole bunch, girl” (the point of the song was that Osmond was trying to convince a girl who had had a bad past relationship to take a chance on dating again.) The lyrics make it clear that the singer is aware of the real meaning of the idiom and is intentionally denying it. But the popularity of the song ended up making the reverse meaning better known than the original.

This is true, and irrelevant. All a descriptivist does is point out the fact that people are using the idiom in its current sense. That does not imply rightness or wrongness: it simply states that if you don’t understand that you won’t understand the language. It is meaningless to talk about a “descriptivist tide.” You might as well rail against stating the correct temperature outside because you want it to be warmer.

Huh ?! I could have sworn valuable albeit regrettably seldom-used body parts on **that **one - my grandma read me the book quite a lot back when I was a kid. And I distinctly remember a “levitation by pulling on one’s shoes” bit. Maybe it’s a translation thing ?

(I also hazily remember a bit about pissing oneself up a tree to avoid a bear, or possibly back down from the tree ; because the weather was so cold the stream immediately turned into ice etc etc… did I imagine that one too ?)

Hmm. So, turn of the XXth then. Bah, get off my lawn.

@Exapno Mapcase : I know it’s an idiom. Idioms mean things. They don’t always have to be logically or literally true, but when they’re not they typically refer to some piece of literature or something. They have a set meaning and usage, is my point.

This particular idiom, for example, is pure folksy farmery logic as applied to political discourse. A bushel of apples really will spoil faster if a few apples in there are rotting already ; and one can keep a bushel of apples longer by diligently removing the spoiling ones as they appear.
That’s perfectly sensible. The application of the saying to political or corporate life is also perfectly sensible : “corruption/bad practices spreads if not treated swiftly and decisively”. One may agree or disagree with the validity of the sentiment, but that’s what that idiom means and what it was introduced into language for.

These days however, this trustworthy and workmanlike idiom has stopped meaning the thing it means and now is used to mean the opposite of what it means and people act like that’s OK just because that’s how people use it these days and it’s maddening.

No, this is more like pointing out (I’m making this up) that people now use the phrase “it’s hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk” to indicate that the ambient temperature is below the freezing point of water.

True, people can say whatever they want to say; I say the current usage of “one bad apple” is stupid.

When I first heard the bootstrap expression as a kid, I pictured a guy with extremely long bootstraps, looped over pulleys at about head height. In that case, it’s not only possible to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps, it’s actually easier, due to the mechanical advantage.

And the “bad apple” one still means exactly the same thing it always has. When one says that there are only a few bad apples, what they mean is that the bunch is spoiled, but that that spoilage could have been prevented by getting rid of the bad ones to begin with.

Another example is Nimrod - a Biblical allusion to the great hunter. Obviously being called a Nimrod is a compliment, right? Well, no. Not since Bugs Bunny used the term ironically to refer to Elmer Fudd. Now it’s an insult. Too many people heard the word first from Bugs Bunny (or people repeating him) since Bugs was very popular and Biblical references have declined in frequency.

This is the same process that happened with the “bad apples” saying, I suspect. People don’t have personal experience with one actual bad apple ruining an actual barrel of apples - so they start interpreting “don’t let one bad apple spoil the bunch” not to mean “get that bad apple out of there immediately before it spoils things” but rather to mean “don’t judge a group to be bad, just because you can find a bad example or two in the group.”

“Head over heels” used to be “heels over head” by the way - but people have been using it in a way that doesn’t make logical sense for nearly two centuries (http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-hea3.htm)

“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.”
Or, in modern english,
You can’t eat your cake and still have it.

Once something is used up…ITS GONE.

Yep people speak of…and even expect…to have their cake and eat it, too.

The saying is actually “one bad apple can spoil the bunch (or barrel)”. As someone else commented, the “bad apples” saying is just an idiom, and they don’t have to make sense.

That literally made my head explode.

Sorry to hear that. We’ll send someone over to clean up the mess.

The phrase seems to have acquired its present meaning when Heinlein was in his teens, and had been used in that sense for more than two decades before he published the story. But it’s clear from the story that he was using it in the sense of advancing yourself without outside assistance, since all of the main characters in the story are the same person.