While the exact origin of “pull yourself together” is a little fuzzy, we can consider the meaning of the phrase and the meanings of its constituent parts to trace it back to a certain origin. We can also tackle this etymological issue by discussing its linguistic development and finding some early written examples of its use.
The origin of the phrase “pull yourself together” is unknown, but it was frequently used by the end of the 19th century, as there’s evidence of being used in the 1860s. However, it seems to have originated on the North American continent.
It could have developed as a reaction to the phrase “to be beside oneself” to signify the opposite state. Keep reading to learn about the possible origin of this phrase, as we will discuss written records of this phrase and consider other variants in our way of uncovering the origin of the saying “pull yourself together.”
The Origin and Meaning Of “Pull Yourself Together”
If you “pull yourself together,” it implies that there are various parts that form you as a whole. Aristotle discussed this very topic when he taught that the human is divided between the mind and the matter or the body and the soul.
The idiom “mind over matter” relates to the same thing.
At its core, it gives the mind an upper hand in deciding a person’s life. The origin of “mind over matter” is thought to be in the 1863 book on human origins, The Geological Evidence of The Antiquity of Man, by Charles Lyell.
The idiom is mentioned in the following excerpt:
“It may be said that, so far from having a materialistic tendency, the supposed introduction into the earth at successive geological periods of life—sensation—instinct—the intelligence of the higher Mammalia bordering on reason—and lastly the improvable reason of Man himself, presents us with a picture of the ever-increasing dominion of mind over matter.”
The essence of “pull yourself together” is emotion control.
It stressed the importance of using logic and the mind to deal with life issues. When we lose control in life, the western idea is that we must gather our thoughts together and suppress our feelings.
This idiom could have originated as a response to a much older idiom, “be beside oneself.” The idiom hails back to the New Testament. In Acts 26:24 in the King James Bible, we read the following lines:
“As he spoke these things, and made his answer, Festus said with a loud voice: Paul, thou art beside thyself: much learning doth make thee mad.”
The idea that people are not themselves when feeling strong emotions is as old as the Bible.
Another notable use of “be beside oneself” is in Virgil’s Aeneid, while other English language phrases with similar meanings include “to gather one’s wits,” “collect one’s thoughts,” and “to collect oneself.” All of the phrases suggest cool-headedness and logical thinking.
The Etymology of “Pull Yourself Together”
We might not know much about the origin of “pull yourself together,” but we have a good idea of when different phrasal verbs started appearing in English. The first time pronominal objects such as “yourself” were used before particles was as early as the 16th century.
In Shakespearean times, some verb-particle combinations use the adverbial particle “together.”
Based on this information, the phrase could have originated anywhere from Shakespearean times until 19th century America. However, according to the Dictionary of slang and unconventional English, “pull yourself together” is labeled as a catchphrase of American origin.
Following the same source, it entered the Oxford Dictionary in 1934 and is believed that around this time, it started spreading to other continents and English-speaking countries, especially to Britain.
In America, as opposed to Britain, phrasal verbs were used frequently, and they had a tendency to create new phrasal verbs. This creativity and proliferation at the colloquial level was a way to break free from British influence and start developing a new culture on the North American continent.
Although idioms often start their lives from a literal phrase and gain a figurative meaning, this was probably not the case with “pull myself together.” According to an entry in the Dictionary of American Idioms, this phrase is only considered figurative.
Sometimes phrasal verbs expand and form new idioms, which could have been the case with “pull myself together.”
The reflexive pronoun “myself” was probably added later to the original “pull together” phrasal verb. The meaning could have changed from “to work together to accomplish a task” to “to become emotionally stabilized, or to regain one’s composure.”
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, the present meaning of the phrase is to recover control of your emotions.
Early Written Records of “Pull Yourself Together”
Upon reviewing old newspaper articles, the conclusion is that the phrase was frequently used around the 1860s. In the New York dispatch in 1867, we can find this phrase in the following lines:
“For though a brave man in the daylight, he was a terrible coward in the darkness and solitude of a churchyard. ‘Oh, nonsense!’ he said, endeavoring to reassure himself; ‘I must pull myself together.’”
The phrase in the previous passage refers to taking control of one’s emotions. The meaning has remained the same since the 19th century. In an article in Dodgeville chronicle in 1867, we can read a variant of this idiom. The meaning is the same as we know it today, but the form is different.
The excerpt reads:
“So I gives myself a pull together, hitches up my shoulders, sets my head down to face the wind and the blinding snow, and then with my hands right at the button of my pockets, off I goes.”
This is an interesting variant of the phrase used in the 19th century and creates a noun of the idiom, a pull-together, which is common in English. Other compound nouns made from verbs and prepositions exist, for example, lookout, take-off, and drawback. The fact that this variant exists might signify that the phrase was still in its infancy and subject to change at this time.
Another 1870 usage of the phrase is found in the Lamoille newsdealer.
“I fainted away, crushed into unconsciousness by the weight of my own absurdity. When I had recovered, I slowly pulled myself together and became aware that I was lying in a ‘vast circus.’ “
The author was clearly unconscious, and he uses the phrase to show regaining sense.
Another source uses the phrase repeatedly found in the Fun Almanac from 1869. In this book we read a poem entitled “All to pieces” with the following lines:
“Go, bid the autumn-stricken rose put forth again its petals; Request the pauper to disclose a haunt of precious metals. Go, bid the dying swan retain the freshness of its feather; But, ask oh ask me not again to ‘pull myself together.’ “
The phrase in the original is written in quotation marks. It could mean that the poet wanted to be clear that the wording was a part of a phrase, as the readership probably would not recognize it easily.
This is another sign that “pull myself together” began its life in the late 19th century.
By researching different types of texts including newspaper articles and books, we can conclude that the phrase was used in the second half of the 19th century. It has retained its meaning and the original wording till the present day. This phrase is being used in everyday informal speech, novels, and poems, and it most certainly continues evolving and will be present in the future.
Some phrases are so deeply ingrained in our everyday speech that we rarely stop to consider where they come from. Pulling yourself together means picking up the pieces of yourself and moving on. It means that we should rise above our emotions and their shattering effect on us.
- Academia: A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English
- Santa Ana Unified School District: Dictionary of American Idioms
- Academia: Oxford Dictionary of Idioms
- Project Gutenberg: The Geological Evidence of The Antiquity of Man
- Holy Books: The King James Holy Bible
- Chronicling America: New York Dispatch February 10, 1867
- Google Books: Fun Almanac
- Chronicling America: Lamoille newsdealer, September 21, 1870
- Chronicling America: Dodgeville chronicle January 03, 1867