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The meaning and origin of the expression: Pride comes before a fall

Pride comes before a fall

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Pride comes before a fall'?

The proverbial saying 'pride comes before a fall' is a warning that haughtiness and hubris leads to failure and loss.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Pride comes before a fall'?

The proverb 'pride comes before a fall' was originally 'pride goes before a fall' and this variant is still commonly used.

In fact, neither version is exactly as the proverb was originally written. The line comes from the Bible and is found, appropriately, in Proverbs 16:18. This is the current King James Version text:

Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

This has been used in biblical versions since at least Wycliffe's Bible in 1382:

Pride goth befor contricioun, & befor falling the spirit shall ben enhauncid.

Pride comes before a fallThe meaning of 'fall' these days is interpreted to be 'downfall; failure' but the biblical meaning indicates something more calamitous. Fall was there meant to indicate what in the OED defines thus:

The action or fact of lapsing into sin or folly, or of yielding to temptation; moral decline, descent, or ruin.

This is the fall that Eve, the original fallen woman, was said to have suffered by tasting the apple of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

So, if early users of the proverb spoke of pride going before contrition or destruction or shame, when did people start saying 'pride comes before a fall'?

The Coverdale Bible of 1535 includes the verse in Proverbs 29:23:

After pryde commeth a fall, but a lowly sprete bryngeth greate worshipe.

The modern wording of 'pride comes before a fall' is first found in England. The earliest citation that I can find of that form was printed in An Exposition of the Old Testament, 1810, by the English theologian John Gill. Gill died in 1771 and the expression was probably known in its current form from before then, although it may be that the 1810 publication altered Gill's original wording.

It's notable that the best known personification of pride in English literature - Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, didn't result in his downfall and failure; the novel concludes with his happy marriage to Elizabeth Bennet.

[My thanks to Peter Lukacs, for the 1535 and 1810 citations.]

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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