AOC: 'It's a physical impossibility to lift yourself up by your bootstrap' (Update)

The Oversight Committee held a hearing Wednesday to discuss proposed changes to poverty line calculations made by the Trump administration. During the hearing, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argued that, contrary to Trump’s claim in the State of the Union, Americans hadn’t been “lifted” off of food stamps, they had been “kicked” off.

“Seven million people have not been lifted off of food stamps in this country, they were kicked off food stamps in this country!” Ocasio-Cortez said. “And people are going hungry. They are going hungry because we like to use the word lift instead of the truth, which was kicked. And we are booting millions of Americans into the streets because we want to believe and dupe ourselves into thinking that we’re doing better. We are not. We’re not.”…

Ocasio-Cortez has sponsored a bill, known as The Recognizing Poverty Act, that would have Congress determine a new, updated poverty line that takes into account factors such as family size and geography…

Ocasio-Cortez’s bill does not specify a proposed poverty line, but in September she floated the number of $38,000 a year. Current poverty guidelines, which went into effect Jan. 15, 2020, list $12,760 as the mark for an individual.

As she is wont to do, AOC got a little carried away with herself in the midst of discussing all of this and went off on a strange tangent about…a familiar idiom:

She literally said this was a metaphor and then immediately pointed out it isn’t psychically possible, which makes you wonder if she understands how metaphors work and what other metaphors she might find problematic.

There’s also the fact that AOC is, to some degree, exactly what most people have in mind when they say “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”

She went from working for tips to a six figure salary. If she can do it, other people can too. That’s really all most people mean by the phrase, i.e. apply yourself with effort and your circumstances can improve.

Is it true, as AOC claims, that this metaphor started out with a different meaning, i.e. something that is absurd and can’t be done? According to a pair of linguists who looked into it, that is true:

Etymologist Barry Popik and linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer have cited an American newspaper snippet from Sept. 30, 1834 as the earliest published reference to lifting oneself up by one’s bootstraps. A month earlier, a man named Nimrod Murphree announced in the Nashville Banner that he had “discovered perpetual motion.” The Mobile Advertiser picked up this tidbit and published it with a snarky response ridiculing his claim: “Probably Mr. Murphree has succeeded in handing himself over the Cumberland river, or a barn yard fence, by the straps of his boots.”

So it’s probably true that this whole thing was a joke nearly 200 years ago (or longer). However, along the way the meaning of the phrase changed from one of ridicule to self-improvement. And another linguist points out that sort of change over time is completely normal [emphasis added]

While it’s certainly interesting to look back on the shifting meaning of the phrase, does this apparent contradiction actually matter? Not really, according to Grant Barrett, a lexicographer and co-host of the public radio show, “A Way with Words.” After all, idioms simply mean what they mean.

“The saying does its new job as well as it did its old job,” said Barrett. “There’s something called the ‘etymological fallacy,’ which is when people incorrectly believe that the original or older meaning of a word or expression is the more correct one. It just isn’t the case: Lexical items often change their meanings; they often have more than one meaning. Those meanings often co-exist, and we learn to manage those possible conflicts through context, clarification, and restatement, which are normal parts of human language.”

By this logic, the modern use of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” is just as valid as the early version. Barrett noted that the English language is full of hyperbolic and figurative expressions that should not be interpreted literally.

So there you go. Everyone knows what the idiom means. No one thinks it’s meant literally and the fact that it used to mean something different 200 years ago doesn’t make the current meaning invalid. Finally, as pointed out above, AOC has to some degree proven it can be done. She’d be better off pointing to herself as an example than dismissing the possibility that others could follow it.

Here’s her full statement at the hearing. The bootstrap portion comes up about 4 minutes into this:

Update: AOC isn’t done.

You can see some of the reactions to this at Twitchy.