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).