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It's in a sample sentence in Oxford Dictionary:

She tumbled back against the slick, damp wall.

I just can't get the meaning of this sentence. What exactly happened to the woman? What does "tumble" and "against" mean here?

How could she "tumbled back",since "tumble" means to fall headlong or roll down? She was against the wall, then how could "tumbled back" happen? I guess it most probablly means she hastily drew back and was against the wall, but literally, according to the sentence, can it in a way mean she rolled back on a sloping wall?

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    She fell backwards and hit the wall in her fall. Tumble. – Laure Mar 6 '14 at 6:42
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    It is not really clear why you are confused. Did you look up what the words mean? If you can explain your confusion more we can help you more! – nxx Mar 6 '14 at 14:22
  • @nxx How could she "tumbled back",since "tumble" means to fall headlong or roll down? She was against the wall, then how could "tumbled back" happen? I guess it most probablly means she hastily drew back and was against the wall, but literally, according to thwe sentence, can it in a way mean she rolled back on a sloping wall? – dennylv Mar 7 '14 at 2:09
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    As mcalex points out, tumble doesn't have a particular direction. Tumble can just mean to fall suddenly. The definitions here should help you: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tumble – nxx Mar 7 '14 at 18:02
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Tumble:

to fall suddenly and helplessly

to turn end over end in falling or flight

to roll over and over, to and fro, or end over end

So tumble can mean roll, or a rolling fall, but it can also just mean a general fall.

against:

in the direction of and into contact with

in contact with

So against can mean something is already in contact with something else (the chair is up against the wall) or that something comes to be in contact with something, as in your example sentence:

She tumbled back against the slick, damp wall.

Here, she fell helplessly (rather than rolled over) and came to be against the wall. It can't mean "she rolled back on a sloping wall", because "against" doesn't indicate a continued movement. We would need words such as the following instead:

she tumbled down the wall (assuming it is sloping!)

she tumbled across / around / along the floor

Note that in these sentences, tumble would probably indicate a rolling action because of the continuity of the action - even falling down the stairs would be a tumble!

As "against" doesn't indicate this kind of continued movement, "to tumble back against" is a one-off fall, not a rolling action, that meant she hit the wall - and "back" just tells us that she fell backwards, not forwards.

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Tumbling does not have a direction (except down). You can tumble forwards, backwards or even sidewards. It is just a rolling fall. Also, headlong is just head first - again not necessarily forwards.

A mental picture that occurred when reading the sentence was of a lady in moor country in winter climbing a steep hill that has a gated 4 foot high wall circling the base. She stumbles on a loose rock, loses her balance and falls backwards, rolling in the fall due to the steepness of the hill. The rolling fall continues until she hits the wall which is slick and damp due to the environment.

Hence: She tumbled back against the slick, damp wall.

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