A Stumble Is Not a Fall

Malcolm X? Oprah Winfrey? Haitian Proverb? Portuguese Proverb? Henry Rich? Thomas Fuller? Thomas Dunn English? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: While pursuing an objective one may make errors and suffer setbacks, but these impediments to progress are not insurmountable. Here are two versions of an analogical proverb offering encouragement:

  • Stumbling is not falling.
  • A stumble is not a fall.

This saying has been attributed to entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey, and activist Malcolm X. It has also been called a Portuguese and Haitian Proverb. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: Malcolm X received credit in the 2000s which is very late. Oprah Winfrey did use the expression during a commencement speech in 2016.

The adage has a very long history. In 1643 Henry Rich, 1st Earl of Holland made an apologetic official declaration which included a thematically related proverb. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

And since I have made an uneven Step, from the Unclearness of my Information, more than from the Unfaithfulness of my Affections or Intentions, I hope it may be look’d upon and consider’d as the Proverb that saith, Whosoever stumbles, and falls not, gets rather than loses ground.

Interestingly, the above saying depicted a stumble positively. Another positive precursor occurred in the 1732 compilation “Gnomologia” edited by Thomas Fuller. The reference included the following four sequential items: 2

423 A stout Heart crushes ill Luck.
424 A Stumble may prevent a Fall.
425 A streight Stick is crooked in the Water.
426 A successful Man loses no Reputation.

The adage above has continued to circulate in books and periodicals up to the present day. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1793 a dictionary published in Paris titled “Nouveau Dictionnaire François” included a French version of the 1643 proverb within the entry for the verb “trébucher” (“to stumble”): 3

On dit proverbialement, Qui trébuche et ne tombe point, avance son chemin.

An 1804 collection of proverbs obtained from several European nations and published in London included the following three sayings: 4

He who spits against Heaven, it falls on his face.
He who stumbles, and falls not, mends his pace.
He who is sick of folly, recovers late or never.

The 1828 reference “Dictionnaire Français-Anglais et Anglais-Français” included a rendering of the 1793 adage into English: 5

Qui trébuche et ne tombe point avance son chemin,
He who stumbles without falling gets forward in his way.

In 1875 “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” published a series of articles titled “The Wit and Wisdom of the Haytians” by John Bigelow who stated that he spent part of 1854 on the island of Haiti collecting proverbs from the inhabitants. The following was the earliest exact match for the saying under examination located by QI: 6

LXXI.
Butté pas tombé.
A stumble is not a fall; or, One error is not ruin.
The horse which draws his halter is not quite escaped.

In 1876 several newspapers printed the poem “Persevere” by the popular poet Thomas Dunn English. The final line of each of the six verses reiterated a version of the adage. This was the first verse: 7

Failed, you tell me, for all of your striving,
Failed, in spite of your utmost care,
Failed, with indolent people thriving–
Why should it breed in the mind despair?
Although your vanity may be humbled,
Your energy back to its place recall;
Your feet have tripped, you have merely stumbled.
You learn that a stumble is not a fall.

The fifth verse ended with these lines:

Pluck up your courage and try again.
A sparkle is left in the dying ember,
And vigorous breath may the flame recall,
Again to your task, and still remember
A stumble’s a stumble and not a fall.

The final verse ended with these lines:

Walk in the path with a steady gait.
Who perseveres in the end wins surely,
Who shrinks in terror can’t win at all;
Go forth in confidence cased securely,
And be glad that a stumble is not a fall.

In 1877 John Bigelow published his serialized articles in book form under the title “The Wit and Wisdom of the Haytians”. Thus, the adage was further disseminated in English: 8

In 1883 a different “Dictionnaire Français-Anglais” edited by Alfred Elwall presented a concise and simplified rendering of the 1793 adage into English. This was the earliest match for the saying with the word “stumbling” located by QI: 9

Qui trébuche et ne tombe point, avance son chemin,
stumbling is not falling.

In 1950 a collection of proverbs from around the world placed the expression into a section of Portuguese adages: 10

169. Stumbling is not falling.
170. Who does not tire, succeeds.
171. We must suffer much or die young.

In 2005 a piece in the “Philadelphia Daily News” of Pennsylvania attributed the saying to Malcolm X: 11

Maybe by remembering Malcolm X, Philadelphia’s black leadership also will remember why they were elected, and black voters why they voted.
Said Brother Malcolm, “Stumbling is not falling.”

In 2016 Oprah Winfrey delivered a commencement address at Johnson C. Smith University of Charlotte, North Carolina. She employed an extended version of the saying: 12

“Whatever you do that is excellent, people notice you, and they talk about you, and they say, ‘Did you see that girl over there?'” At the same time, Winfrey told the graduates and their guests that mistakes happen. But “every stumble is not a fall, and every fall does not mean failure,” she said.

In conclusion, interesting precursors to the proverb were circulating in the 1600s and 1700s in English and French, and QI hypothesizes that the saying evolved from these precursors. The earliest exact match found by QI appeared as a Haitian proverb collected circa 1854 and published in 1875.

(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Mardy who has written several books about quotations operates a valuable website with an extensive collection of metaphorical quotations.)

Notes:

  1. 1692, Historical Collections: The Third Part: Volume 2, Containing the Principal Matters Which Happened from the Meeting of the Parliament November 3, 1640 to the End of the Year, 1644, Licensed: November 11, 1691, Edited by John Rushworth, Declaration made to the Kingdom by Henry Earl of Holland, Date of Declaration: 1643, Start Page 367, Quote Page 368, Printed for Richard Chiswell and Thomas Cockerill, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1732, Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Collected by Thomas Fuller, Quote Pages 16, Printed for B. Barker, A. Bettesworth, and C. Hitch, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1793, Nouveau Dictionnaire François, Composé sur le Dictionnaire de l’Academie Francoise, Tome Second: L – Z, Entry: TRÉBUCHER, Quote Page 627, J. B. Delamolliere, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1804, Proverbs; or, The Manual of Wisdom: Being an Alphabetical Arrangement of the Best English, Spanish, French, Italian, and Other Proverbs, Second Edition, Quote Page 34, Printed for Tarbart and Company, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1828, Dictionnaire Français-Anglais et Anglais-Français, Editor: A. Boniface (Alexandre Boniface), Entry: TRÉBUCHER, Quote Page 1171, De Belin Mandar et Devaux, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1875 September, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, The Wit and Wisdom of the Haytians by John Bigelow, Start Page 583, Quote Page 585, Column 1, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1876 April 8, Northern Ohio Journal, Persevere by Thomas Dunn English, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Painesville, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1877, The Wit and Wisdom of the Haytians by John Bigelow, Quote Page 97, Scribner & Armstrong, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1883, Dictionnaire Français-Anglais: A L’usage des Etablissements D’Instruction Publique et des Gens du Monde, Par Alfred Elwall, Treizième édition (Thirteenth edition), Entry: Trébucher, Quote Page 826, Column 2, Librairie Delagrave, Paris, France. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  10. 1950, Racial Proverbs: A Selection of the World’s Proverbs Arranged Linguistically, Edited by Selwyn Gurney Champion, Second Edition, Section: Portuguese, Quote Page 253, Barnes & Nobel, New York. (Verified with scans)
  11. 2005 May 19, Philadelphia Daily News, A few thoughts on Malcolm & Ron by Rotan Lee, Quote Page 17, Column 5, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 2016 May 16, The Charlotte Observer, Article: Johnson C. Smith University commencement – Oprah tells grads: ‘Future’s so bright, it burns my eyes’ – Former talk show host delivers rousing commencement address, Author/Byline: Théoden Janes (Staff Writer), Quote Page 1A, Charlotte, North Carolina. (Newsbank Access World News)