There Is No Greater Mistake than To Try To Leap an Abyss in Two Jumps

David Lloyd George? Ambrose Bierce? Garry Davis? Arianna Huffington? Benjamin Disraeli? Anonymous?

aleap05Dear Quote Investigator: Arianna Huffington who is well-known for creating the website “The Huffington Post” once employed a vivid and astute saying about commitment and the need to take decisive actions:

You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps.

She attributed the statement to David Lloyd George who was the British Prime Minister during World War I. Recently I saw a different version of the saying:

The most dangerous thing in the world is to leap a chasm in two jumps.

Would you examine this quotation to determine its proper form?

Quote Investigator: The Prime Minister did include an instance of this expression in volume two of the “War Memoirs of David Lloyd George” which was published in 1933. Lloyd George used the word “abyss” instead of “chasm” and his phrasing differed from the most common modern versions. The topic was passing difficult legislation in two separate steps. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Even under the accommodating Premiership of Mr. Asquith there were ominous growls and occasional outbursts of impatience from the straitest of his supporters. They resented conscription, which had consequently to be carried in two steps. There is no greater mistake than to try to leap an abyss in two jumps.

The figure of speech at the core of this saying had already been employed decades earlier, but Lloyd George was an important locus for its popularization, and in later years he often received credit.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1873 a writer in the “Chicago Times” of Illinois expressed great skepticism about the plans of a duo who said that they hoped to travel from the United States to Europe in a balloon. The columnist used a simile with a stag to highlight the unlikely nature of the enterprise: 2

Perhaps they will conclude to stay in Europe—perhaps half way there, like the unfortunate stag who tried to cross a deep chasm in two jumps.

In 1911 volume six of “The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce” was published. Bierce was a prominent journalist and short story writer in the United States. The volume reprinted a slightly revised set of fables that Bierce had composed for a London periodical “Fun” in 1872 and 1873. In the following fable the attempt to cross an “abyss by two leaps” epitomized foolishness: 3

A Jackal in pursuit of a Deer was about to seize it, when an earthquake opened a broad and deep chasm between him and his prey.

“This,” he said, “is a pernicious interference with the laws of Nature. I refuse to recognize any such irregularity.” So he resumed the chase, endeavoring to cross the abyss by two leaps.

In 1928 an article in “The Baltimore Sun” newspaper described the engineering challenges that were overcome during the construction of a bridge across the Colorado River. Half of the span was built with very strong bracing, and this enabled the construction of the remainder of the bridge. Here the simile was employed in a distinctive fashion because the “leap across a chasm in two jumps” was actually successful: 4

From this point the bridge has proceeded in a fashion suggesting the movements of a man trying to leap across a chasm in two jumps. The first move of the builders has been to construct the first half of their span—308 feet in length—and to follow this step by throwing the second half across the remainder of the distance from the end of the portion already completed.

In 1929 an article in the “The Hartford Courant” in Connecticut discussed the use of doubles to execute difficult or dangerous stunts in movies. Here “jumping a chasm in two jumps” referred to an impossible task that would harm an actor playing the hero in a film: 5

It would be financially foolish to permit said hero to be messed up so that he wouldn’t photograph nicely by jumping a chasm in two jumps, or going down the third and last time in rescue scene in the raging (tank) sea, or anything like that.

In 1933 David Lloyd George published a version of the saying in his memoirs as mentioned previously.

In 1949 the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” of Ohio printed a profile of the advocate of a plan for world government named Garry Davis. He used a version of the adage without attribution: 6

“Everybody thinks we are Utopian,” Davis said. “Actually, we’re more practical than those people who point out all the difficulties, how world government has to come step by step. Our answer to that is: You can’t jump a chasm in two leaps.”

In 1952 a newspaper in Boston, Massachusetts reprinted an instance of the saying from a Florida periodical: 7

The most dangerous thing in the world is to try to leap a chasm in two jumps.
Naval Air Gosport

In 1960 Bennett Cerf, the industrious quotation collector, included a version of the saying credited to Lloyd George in his syndicated newspaper column. A prefatory sentence emphasized a didactic interpretation: 8

LLOYD GEORGE: — Don’t be afraid to take a big step if one is indicated. You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps.

In 1977 the influential collection “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” contained the following: 9

The most dangerous thing in the world is to leap a chasm in two jumps. —David Lloyd George

In 2010 “The Daily Beast” website published an excerpt from the book “Third World America” by Arianna Huffington that included an instance of the adage: 10

“You can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps,” said World War I-era British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. And you can’t cross it in a series of little steps either.

The entry for the saying on the Wikiquote webpage for David Lloyd George listed a 1941 citation followed by a wide variety of different ascriptions: 11

There is nothing more dangerous than to leap a chasm in two jumps.

As quoted in Design for Power: The Struggle for the World (1941) by Frederick Lewis Schuman, p. 200; This is the earliest citation yet found for this or similar statements which have been attributed to David Lloyd George, as well as to Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill, Vaclav Havel, Jeffrey Sachs, Rashi Fein, Walter Bagehot and Philip Noel-Baker. It has been described as a Greek, African, Chinese, Russian and American proverb, and as “an old Chassidic injunction”.

In conclusion, the implausible notion of crossing a chasm in two jumps has been used as a simile or metaphor for many years. Examples begin by the 1870s. David Lloyd George presented a cautionary maxim of this type in his 1933 memoirs, and he often receives credit.

Image Notes: Leap photographed by H. H. Bennett. Public domain photograph taken and published in 1886 from Wikimedia Commons which acknowledged the Wisconsin Historical Society. David Lloyd George image from U.S. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who introduced this topic to QI and located the 1911 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1933, “War Memoirs of David Lloyd George, Volume II” by David Lloyd George, Chapter XXIV: Disintegration of the Liberal Party, Page 740, Ivor Nicholson & Watson, London. (First Edition October 1933; reprint in November 1933) (Verified on paper in November 1933 reprint)
  2. 1873 July 13, Chicago Times (Sunday Times), Flying to Europe, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1911, The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce: The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter: Fantastic Fables, Volume 6, Fables From “Fun”, Start Page 328, Quote Page 338, The Neale Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1928 August 12, The Sun (The Baltimore Sun), New Bridge Will Save a 1,000-Mile Detour Quote Page C1, Baltimore, Maryland. (ProQuest)
  5. 1929 May 23, The Hartford Courant, The Observation Post by Walter Brown (Dramatic Editor), Quote Page 19, Column 1, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  6. 1949 February 26, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Says World Rule Plan Is Practical: Garry Davis Asserts Idea Is Possible in 5 Years by John P. Leacacos, Quote Page 9, Column 6, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1952 August 10, Boston Record American, Section: Pictorial Review, (Title of two page spread: “The Cheering Section”, Conducted by Bruce Patterson), Quote Page 9, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1960 January 3, Los Angeles Times, Section: This Week Magazine, Bennett Cerf’s Cerfboard: Cheerful Earfuls, Start Page M14, Quote Page M15, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  9. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Conservatives, Quote Page 131, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  10. Website: The Daily Beast, Article title: America’s Real Problem: We Failed the Middle Class, Article author: Arianna Huffington (excerpt from “Third World America”, Date on website: September 11 2010, Website description: The Daily Beast was founded in 2008 as the vision of Tina Brown and IAC Chairman Barry Diller; dedicated to breaking news and commentary. (Accessed thedailybeast.com on March 13, 2014) link
  11. Website: Wikiquote, Entry Name: David Lloyd George, Website description: Crowd-sourced database of quotation information. (Accessed wikiquote.org on March 13, 2014) link