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shameless pleading





Go to the wall

Anyone got a spare Plan B?

Dear Word Detective: I recently read a report that said a number of businesses “went to the wall” after a competitor dropped its prices. I assume that said businesses were in big trouble. So what kind of “wall” are we talking about here? Is it going to fall on them? Please let the rest of us in on the origin of this phrase. — Mark Wujek.

Probably because I have spent so much of my life poring over New Yorker cartoons, upon reading your question my immediate mental image was of a firing squad preparing to dispatch a bankrupt business owner. As a New Yorker cartoon genre, the firing squad is right up there with desert islands, therapists’ couches, and, of course, talking dogs.

There seem to be a number of theories floating around about the origin of “go to the wall” in the sense of “to succumb” or “to fail in business.” One traces the phrase to graveyards in centuries past, where the recently deceased were supposedly placed “at the wall” around the cemetery while waiting to be buried. While it is true that in the 16th century “by the wall” was used to describe a ship laid up in dock for repairs (and therefore useless), and later used to mean “dead but not buried,” I’m not convinced that this is the source of the phrase (although Brewer’s 1898 Dictionary of Phrase and Fable does endorse this origin).

Another story ties the phrase to “medieval churches,” where the old and infirm poor were allowed to lean against the church walls for support during services. Even if this were truly the practice at the time (and there is no evidence that it was), this theory doesn’t exactly match up with the meaning of “fail or succumb.” Sounds more like persevering to me.

My initial vision of a firing squad putting a condemned prisoner “up against the wall” is another possibility, of course, but the earliest uses of the phrase “go to the wall” in the 16th and 17th centuries to mean “to succumb or give way in a struggle” argue against that explanation.

Since the earliest uses of the phrase drew an analogy to a struggle, I think the most likely explanation comes from the classic street fight, perhaps a duel with swords, where the weaker party might well find himself backed into a corner or against a wall as the unpleasant end nears. Thus “to go to the wall,” meaning “to fail,” would be related to the phrase “to have one’s back against the wall,” meaning to be in dire straits with no avenue of retreat. “Going to the wall” would thus signify the final stage of a losing fight. This would be consistent with another use of “go to the wall” meaning “to be willing to sacrifice everything” (“I told my brother I would go to the wall for him”).

In any case, the use of “go to the wall” meaning specifically “to fail” was well-established by the mid-19th century (“In Berlin a newspaper would very soon go to the wall if it did not present its subscribers with light entertainment,” 1891).

8 comments to Go to the wall

  • Farmer1

    In Western Canadian usage, there is no context of failure with this term, but more of the persevering, throwing everything into the fight meaning. This would also be consistent with the “I told my brother I would go to the wall for him” example you quote.

    A notable use of this phrase was by our Provincial Premier during the farm crisis of the 80’s when he stated that “his Government would go to the wall for the Saskatchewan farmer”. Premier Devine was also noted for the use of the phrases “give’er snooze, Bruce”, and “never say whoa in a mud hole”.

    Since he got his PhD at Ohio State, some of these usages may have been Americanism’s rather than strictly Canadian.

  • Helena

    In England in Medieval times it was compulsory to go to church, but the churches had no seats. After a while a few sits were affixed to the wall for those who were elderly or otherwise could not stand for the whole time, hence original saying “the weakest go to the wall”.

  • Yael

    Helena: Have you even noticed that this theory is actually referred to in the post? And mentions that ‘there is no evidence that it was [the practice at the time]’?
    The only difference between that discarded folk etymology and your own is that you claim the medieval churches had no seats (at first). That sounds fascinating, but unless you can back that up somehow, I would assume it’s the same discarded folk etymology.

  • slimboy

    When I read the above question and examples, I remembered the opening lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (though, in my head, I still see Jamie Kennedy as Sampson from the Baz Luhrman “Romeo + Juliet” movie.)

    A dog of that house shall move me to stand: I will
    take the wall of any man or maid of Montague’s.
    That shows thee a weak slave; for the weakest goes
    to the wall.
    True; and therefore women, being the weaker vessels,
    are ever thrust to the wall: therefore I will push
    Montague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids
    to the wall.

    That would certainly indicate a popular usage at the time, unless it was coined in the play.

    That being said, I have always thought of the phrase “go to the wall” as being (like Farmer1 says) a positive saying. Going to the wall for a cause or a person, to me, means being willing to give up everything to fight for said cause or person.

  • Anonymous

    So, ship walls, street walls, church walls and cemetery walls. How about castle walls? That’s the wall you would go to to fight and that’s the wall you’ve gone to if you’ve succumbed/died.

  • I concur with those who believe “go to the wall” means giving it your all to achieve something. In baseball, an outfielder will often go to the wall to snag a ball.

  • AC

    I looked this up as I am reading Pilgrim’s Progress and I was only familiar with the failing business definition. The quote: “Some are strong, some are weak; some have great faith, some have little: this man was one of the weak and therefore he went to the wall”. This would seem to give credence to the church wall theory as Pilgrim’s Progress is a somewhat religious text, written around 1678.

  • Laurie Jewett

    Did anyone consider a connection with the firing squad?

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