A student asked me about the expression "go to the wall" in the sense of a failing business, and I promised to look up the origin. A couple of websites I find talk about laying a corpse near the cemetary wall prior to burial, but I find no authoritative citations or dates. Can anyone help?

Mark Barratt
Budapest
A student asked me about the expression "go to the wall" in the sense of a failing business, and I ... a corpse near the cemetary wall prior to burial, but I find no authoritative citations or dates. Can anyone help?

OED has this:
13. to go to the wall (or {dag}walls): a. to give way, succumb in aconflict or struggle.
1589 Pasquil's Ret. Aiiij, They neuer went to the wall, till theygrewe to be factious. 1601 J. WHEELER Treat. Comm. 111 Wee should go to the walles, be wronged and exacted vpon euery where. 1859 H. KINGSLEY G. Hamlyn xxix, Sam and Mayford are both desperately in love with her, and one must go to the wall. 1861 LD. BROUGHAM Brit. Const. xx. 385 It is easy to see which power will go to the wall if a conflict occurs. 1867 TROLLOPE Chron. Barset xliii, In all these struggles Crosbie had had the best of it, and Butterwell had gone to the wall.
Proverb. (1535: see WAW). 1549 CHEKE Hurt Sedit. (1641) 53 When brethren agree not in a house, goeth not the weakest to the walls? 1579 LYLY Euphues (Arb.) 53 The weakest must still to the wall. 1592 SHAKES. Rom. & Jul. I. i. 18. 1651 CULPEPPER Astrol. Judgem. Dis. (1658) 80 You know the old proverb, The weakest goes to the Walls.
b. Of a business, matter, etc.: To give way or give precedence (to something else).
1858 GLADSTONE Homer III. 519 Here is another case of metre againsthistory, and in all such cases history must go (as is said) to the wall.
1890 M'CARTHY Four Georges II. 45 Where political interests interferedfamily arrangements went to the wall.
c. To fail in business.
1842 THACKERAY Miss Tickletoby's Lect. vi. Wks. 1886 XXIV. 37 It wasbetter for all parties that poor Shortlegs should go to the wall. 1854 SURTEES Handley Cr. lxxii. (1901) II. 253 He had been the property of some East-end Bowker, who, in classical language, had ‘gone to the wall’. 1879 SPENCER Data of Ethics xv. §103. 266 Others of his (a merchant's) debtors by going to the wall may put him in further difficulties. 1891 19th Cent. Dec. 861 In Berlin a newspaper would very soon go to the wall if it did not present its subscribers with light entertainment.

(I wonder if Miss Tickletoby was related to Miss Thistlebottom?)

Laura
(emulate St. George for email)
A student asked me about the expression "go to the wall" in the sense of a failing business, and I ... a corpse near the cemetary wall prior to burial, but I find no authoritative citations or dates. Can anyone help?

To be inside walls denotes safety. To be pushed to the limit of that safe environment indicates the possibility of imminent destruction; the next step is expulsion and the wolves.
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A student asked me about the expression "go to the ... I find no authoritative citations or dates. Can anyone help?

To be inside walls denotes safety. To be pushed to the limit of that safe environment indicates the possibility of imminent destruction; the next step is expulsion and the wolves.

There's an old saying that "The weakest go to the wall", which I take to mean that they become ineffectual losers. Google yielded a striking example in a speech (I suppose just before the American Civil War): "We know you are brave; we understand your prowess; we want no fight with you; but, nevertheless, if you drive us to that necessity, we must use all the powers of this Government to maintain it intact in its integrity. If we are overthrown we but share the fate of a thousand other governments that have been subverted. If you are the weakest, then you must go to the wall; and that is all there is about it".
Traditionally the saying is supposed to derive from the provision in medieval churches of seating only along the side walls, for the convenience of the sick and old during Mass: the wall was where the weakest had to go, while the fit and active could stand or move about as they wished. It's certainly true that many old churches do have stone "benches" built into the interior walls, and that other seating for the congregation wasn't originally installed.
Alan Jones.
To be inside walls denotes safety. To be pushed to ... imminent destruction; the next step is expulsion and the wolves.

There's an old saying that "The weakest go to the wall", which I take to mean that they become ineffectual ... have stone "benches" built into the interior walls, and that other seating for the congregation wasn't originally installed. Alan Jones.

The late, and still missed, John Ciardi in his (wonderful) "A Browser's Dictionary" says "be driven to the wall" (which has to be the same issue(?)) means "to go bankrupt. Especially to be driven out of the securities market. (The root image is of being jostles to one side of a narrow city lane (hence, against the wall) by a carriage or by a group of powerful men who take up the center of the passageway. So thrust aside > no longer in the busy mainstream . . ." (etc.)

Jim Lewis - (Email Removed) - Tallahassee, FL - Nature encourages no looseness, pardons no errors. Ralph Waldo Emerson
To be inside walls denotes safety. To be pushed to ... imminent destruction; the next step is expulsion and the wolves.

There's an old saying that "The weakest go to the wall", which I take to mean that they become ineffectual ... have stone "benches" built into the interior walls, and that other seating for the congregation wasn't originally installed. Alan Jones.

If that is so then it seems a reasonable enough explanation to give to young Hungarians. I have not seen such benches and merely assumed an origin in keeping with common sense.
The saying is biblical, I believe, and somewhere there's a gloss, I'm sure; but churches are recent by biblical standards and Jericho existed before Jews discovered it.
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Mark Barratt wrote in a message to All:
MB> From: "Mark Barratt" (Email Removed)
MB> A student asked me about the expression "go to the wall" in the MB> sense of a failing business, and I promised to look up the origin. MB> A couple of websites I find talk about laying a corpse near the MB> cemetary wall prior to burial, but I find no authoritative MB> citations or dates. Can anyone help?
Could be derived from the phrase "the weakest go to the wall", which I have been told comes from the seating arrangements in some churches, where there are chairs or benches round the walls for the old and infirm. But that may be an urban legend (cf "posh").
If the derivation is true, then I suppose it indicates that the business is so weak that it cannot stand on its own two feet.

Steve Hayes
WWW: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/7734/stevesig.htm E-mail: (Email Removed) - If it doesn't work, see webpage.

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A student asked me about the expression "go to the ... but I find no authoritative citations or dates.Can anyone help?

OED has this:

Thank you, Laura. OED doesn't seem to shed much light on the original meaning of the expression, though. I note that two posters have heard that "The weakest shall go to the wall" has to do with the design of early churches, with seating only along the walls for the infirm. This contradicts the story I found in a couple of other places. Ron and Jim's interpretations are interesting, but I presume that they're speculating.
I don't find the two 16th century citations in your quote from OED entirely convincing, though presumably the OED's editors felt that these have the same meaning. Those from the 19th century, though, clearly have the modern sense.
I think this remains open. Thanks for all responses.

Mark Barratt
Budapest