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Where did that phrase come from - You have to crawl before you walk
Stan St. Clair

Stanley J. St. Clair


A couple of weeks ago while in the office of the Southern Standard, I was visiting with publisher Pat Zechman and circulation director Dale Stubblefield about the future expansion of my column to other media. Both had told me of the advantages of including it in the Smithville Review and on the new Middle Tennessee area website www.wearemidtn.com.

Thanks to these fine people, these two outlets are now carrying versions of my column. I mentioned that I wanted to eventually take it even further. Then I said to Mr. Stubblefield, “Of course I mean at some future point. You have to crawl before you can walk.”

Inspired by the obvious truth, this old saying means that before one tries to do complex tasks or accomplish great feats, he or she must go through learning the basics. Simple tasks completed well may enable us to be more prepared to accomplish greater goals. Though tracking its origin is elusive, it has likely been in common usage since at least the 19th century.

In “Correspondence Course in Psychic Science Part Four,” by Albert W. Wicks and Dr. J. Upton Bartholomew, published in 1911 by the American University of Mental Sciences in Chicago, on 272, the authors state:

“Take your time. Do not be in too big a hurry. Remember you are developing what is a practically new sense … You must crawl before you can walk.”

In a column in the University of Alberta student paper, The Gateway on Feb. 21, 1947 titled “Time Out with Dick Beddoes,” in writing about skiing, he used it as we are accustomed to today:

“Unless a beginner, the carefree type who isn’t bothered by small annoyances like a broken arm or leg, it is advisable that he go at skiing cautiously … you have to crawl before you can walk.”

A similar phrase is “Don’t put the cart before the horse.” This means we should not do things out of proper order. It dates back to the age in which horses were used to pull wagons, buggies and other wheeled vehicles. 

In fact, the great Roman statesman Cicero accused the legendary Greek poet Homer of trying to do this by relating the moral of his stories before telling the stories themselves. From the 1500s on, English writers such as Sir Thomas More, William Shakespeare and Charles Kingsley used this expression. 

By the 1700s it was considered cliché. 

Stan St. Clair is the author of the best-selling book, “Most Comprehensive Origins of Clichés, Proverbs and Figurative Expressions.” If you would like to know the origin of a favorite expression, contact him at stan@stclair.net.