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The phrase “go to the wall” means to be in a desperate situation. It is often confused with the similar phrases “laid by the wall” and “hit the wall.” “Laid by the wall” means to fail or perish, while “hit the wall” is an athlete’s term for the limits of physical endurance. The meanings are similar enough that each phrase is sometimes confused with “go to the wall,” particularly in spoken conversation. While each phrase expresses a kind of limit or extreme, each originally refers to a different metaphorical wall.
In its most common meaning, “go to the wall” refers to the close-quarters hand combat that was common before the invention of firearms. A person beset by multiple opponents would be wise to stand against a wall to prevent an attack from behind. This strategy also means no escape is possible without first defeating the attackers, a desperate situation. The image of a struggle is central to this meaning of “go to the wall,” also sometimes said as “up against it” or “back to the wall.” During World War I, for example, British General Douglas Haig said, “With our backs to the wall, and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end."
Another form of “go to the wall” refers to medieval European burial traditions. At one time, when dead bodies were brought to churchyards to be buried, they would be placed along the wall of the church or the graveyard. This led to the expression “laid by the wall,” meaning to be dead but unburied. Like many other expressions for “dead,” “laid by the wall” soon became a metaphor for utter defeat. Although this phrase has fallen out of use in modern times, its meaning has become entwined with other “wall” expressions.
Endurance athletes, such as marathon runners, refer to a phenomenon known as “hitting the wall.” This occurs when the body is pushed to its limits during strenuous sports, resulting in sudden fatigue from a lack of available food energy. In this sense, the “wall” is totally metaphorical, referring to the limit of the body’s endurance. Athletes will sometimes say “go to the wall” instead, confusing two common expressions about encountering an imaginary wall.
The English language is fluid, with words and expressions constantly gaining new forms or meanings. While some despair over changes in the language, these changes ensure that words and phrases continue to be used by new generations of speakers and writers. The various meanings of “go to the wall” are no exception. Even in Shakespeare’s time, the phrases were often confused. In the first scene of Romeo and Juliet, two characters engage in Shakespeare’s trademark wordplay over the various possible meanings of the phrase “goes to the wall.”