Jill Came Tumbling After

By Maeve Maddox

The word fall in English, both as a verb and a noun, has numerous meanings.

People can fall, but so can stocks, water levels, and empires.

As a noun fall can refer to the season Fall, the fall of a city, and the Fall of Man.

Leaving aside the many ways in which inanimate objects can fall, people can be said to fall, slip, topple, tumble, keel over, and take a spill.

Each choice carries a different connotation.

topple suggests a fall from a high place, possibly induced or caused by a displacement of weight: He lost his balance at the summit and toppled to the canyon floor.

keel over suggests that the person fell over suddenly: We were walking along talking when she simply keeled over.

take a spill would be appropriate to describe a fall from a horse or from skis.

For me tumble is a playful word for a fall with minor consequences. Perhaps it’s because I associate it with a nursery rhyme. When Jack fell down and broke his crown, Jill came tumbling after. And while the words “broke his crown” may suggest a split skull, all it means is that Jack cut his forehead:

Up Jack got and home did trot,
As fast as he could caper,
To old Dame Dob, who patched his nob
With vinegar and brown paper.

In my mind people who “tumble” may get hurt, but they aren’t killed, so I’d use tumble to describe a minor fall.

Because I don’t associate serious consequences with the word tumble, I was startled by its use in a grim news story:

David John Pimental, 19, of Fort Smith tumbled off a bridge around 10:15 p.m.

This “tumble” was not minor. In an attempt to avoid oncoming traffic during an ice storm, the unfortunate Pimental slid from a dark ice-covered bridge and plummeted 180 feet to his death.

From The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 2nd ed.( 2008), here are some more words for the way people can fall:

go head over heels
go headlong
collapse
pitch forward
trip
stumble
slip

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3 Responses to “Jill Came Tumbling After”

  • Dwain Wilder

    Regarding your article on Jack and Jill, it would be interesting to me to hear and exegesis of the first two lines:

    Jack and Jill went up the hill
    to get a pail of water.

    You don’t ordinarily go up a hill to draw water from a well, of course. So what were they really up to?

    Please keep up your work. A bright spot each morning.

    Best regards,
    Dwain Wilder, Luthier

  • Cat Woods

    Thanks for the vivid example in how our verb choice can greatly impact a sentence. It’s a lesson all writers should strive to learn.

  • Andy Knoedler

    1. “go head or heels” => “go head over heels”

    2. tumble = this often connotes a sudden fall, as in “Prices tumbled on the major exchanges yesterday”.

    3. topple = rather than a fall from a high place (I’d use “plunge” instead), this suggests the downfall of a dictator or a tower.

    4. keel over = this suggests someone has fainted; it must have come from mariners describing a ship capsizing.

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