phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

Home | Search the website Search | Discussion Forum Home|

Up against it/the wall

Posted by Lewis on March 21, 2003

In Reply to: My back is to the wall posted by ESC on March 14, 2003

: : : : : : : In a recent conversation, a combat veteran stated that, "He is the kind of guy that I would go to the wall for." Is this a relatively new phrase referring to the Viet Nam Memorial Wall or is it perhaps more deeply rooted in history? Why "wall?" Is it the same as "going the extra mile" for someone or something?

: : : : : : TO GO TO THE WALL ? ?Though now it is usually a business house that, under insurmountable financial difficulties, ?goes to the wall,' it was ? back in the sixteenth century ? the adversary in a conflict that, forced to yield ground, went to the wall. The allusion is to the desperate straits of a wayfarer when set upon by ruffians in an unlighted street of former years. By giving ground and getting his back to the wall he was better able to defend himself by poniard or sword. From the same situation, by no means uncommon in the Middle Ages and later, came our expression, to be driven (or pushed to the wall,? which we now use in a similar sense, to be forced to one?s last resource.? From ?Heavens to Betsy? by Charles Earle Funk (1955, Harper & Row, New York).

: : : : : : A similar phrase:

: : : : : : WITH ONE?S BACK TO THE WALL -- "Hard-pressed, making a last stand. The expression comes from fighting. Literally backing up against a wall prevents an attack from the rear but also may prevent further retreat. The term has been used since the sixteenth century but became famous near the end of World War I, when General Douglas Haig of Great Britain, according to the London Times (April 13, 1918), ordered his troops 'Every position must be held to the last man...With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end.'" From "Fighting Words: from War, Rebellion, and Other Combative Capers" by Christine Ammer (NTC Publishing Group, Chicago, 1989, 1999).

: : : : : Here's what my assembled references have to say:
: : : : : To go to the wall is to be put on one side; to be shelved; to fail or become moribund. The wall in this instance is that of a church or graveyard where people are laid prior to being buried. The relationship is easily seen.

: : : : In mediaeval times - churches were standing room only for the commoners and everybody was obliged to attend. the old and infirm were allowed to lean against the walls for support - hence the expression "the weak go to the wall" - I have heard that many times on tours around old churches, so I believe it to be authentic.

: : : Are we talking British/American differences here? I'll see what my other references say. (And why are my quotes turning into question marks, I wonder?)

: : go to the wall
: : 1 v phr by 1589 To be ruined and destitute; collapse: "... if a real biggie, like Brazil, say, went to the wall" --Playboy
: : 2 v phr by 1858 To do sacrifice oneself; give way to another's interest; = GO ALL THE WAY: "We've gone to the wall for you" --TV program _Cagney and Lacey_
: : [first sense fr the plight of someone being executed by being shot, against a _wall_]
: : From _Dictionary of American Slang, Third Edition_ by Robert L. Chapman

: "To go to the wall - To be ruined; collapse financially. This is in allusion to another phrase, 'laid by the wall,' i.e., dead but not buried." From "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable" revised by Adrian Room (HarperCollinsPublishers, New York, 1999, Sixteenth Edition).

: It looks like Mr. Funk and I are outnumbered. But to "go to the wall" with someone still makes me envision people with backs to the wall fighting rather than dead laid by the wall. Maybe it's just me.

"backs against the wall" is a different expression to "go to the wall" and the defiance of "backs against the wall" is reflected in "up against it". Two distinct expressions are getting mixed up here - in fact 3 - as the cagney/lacey one probably should read "through the wall" being the metaphor of the wall of pain/pain barrier from long-distance running.
Backing against the wall is defiance, not cowardice - as you cannot be attacked from behind, but equally you can only get away by facing your enemy. It is the urban equivalent of fighting "back to back" in which a small group of fighters prevents there being a rear to attack by fighting close together facing different directions in a melee.