I read in a book and see this paragraph:

'In the last age, when my mother lived in London, there were two sets of people, those who gave the wall, and those who took it; the peaceable and the quarrelsome. When I returned to Lichfield, after having been in London, my mother asked me, whether I was one of those who gave the wall, or those who took it. NOW it is fixed that every man keeps to the right; or, if one is taking the wall, another yields it; and it is never a dispute.'

What do "gave the wall" and "take it" mean in this context? I think "gave the wall" is build the wall and "take it" is destroy the wall. Right or wrong? Or it refer to a indirect meaning?

  • I'm not complaining about the karma, but the usual process is to wait about 24 hours before accepting an answer, to give other people the opportunity to answer as well.
    – nick012000
    May 14, 2019 at 4:11
  • Ok, @nick012000, I am new May 14, 2019 at 4:16

2 Answers 2


As nick012000's answer indicates, to "give the wall to X" is to defer to X, to show respect to X, to yield to X, or to protect X. The implication is that the one to whom you are giving the wall is deserving of your respect or deference.

The following is a historical trip through ancient digitized works with examples to illustrate the usage of this phrase.

The story "Overlooked" in a printing of In the Golden Days by the late 19th century pseudonymous author Edna Lyall has a character saying:

'How can you tell what's in him? Why, we none of us thought it was in him to act as he acted to-day -- he who was ever one to give the wall and take the gutter.'

A Satire on Satirists, a book of verse by Walter Savage Landor printed in London in 1836, contains the following couplets:

As for your Germans, petty pismire hosts,
Nathans, Iphigeneias, Meisters, Fausts,
Any two stanzas here are worth 'em all . .
So let your Privy Council give the wall.

A 1793 almanac contains the pithy saying:

You must give the wall to a king, and to a blind man.

A 1777 directive in the Order Book of the 1st. Regt., S. C. Line, Continental Establisment [sic] commands:

Every non Commissioned officer and Private is Therefore hereby Ordered to touch his Cap and Give the wall to every Continental officer whome he Shall meet, This order to be Read to the men of each Company every morning for the Insuing week......

In Plays Written by the Late Ingenious Mrs. Behn, printed in London in 1724, a play called "The Rover; or, The Banish'd Cavaliers" contains this statement by character La Nuche:

La Nu. Then with this Poverty so proud you are, you will not give the Wall to the Catholick King, unless his Picture hung upon't.

A Certain Information Of a Certain Discourse, a work printed in London in 1712, ostensibly written by Sir Thomas Burnet (who would have been 18 years old at the time), contains the following exchange between characters Daribeus and Scudiero:

Dari. Supposing I shou'd yield you up this Point, and confess that both Parties act alike in Encouraging Vice; yet I must insist upon it, that the Clergy meet with a much greater Degree of Respect from the Tories than from the Whigs, who are glad to meet with any of our Order, whom they can Laugh at, or Ridicule.

Scud. Ay, ay, You Whigs Contemn the Clergy, and I have often observed at London, that a Whig will never give the Wall to a Minister. But come, here is Prosperity to the Clergy.

The 1696 edition of The New World of English Words: Or, A Universal English Dictionary, in its definition of ceremonies, says:

Among private persons, Ceremonies are Acts of Civility and Decency, in token of respect and kindness; as, to give the Wall, the upper end of the Table, to be uncover'd, &c.

However, the 1658 and 1671 editions of this dictionary do not include that sentence in the definition of ceremonies.

A 1680 English translation, printed in London, of the Roman poet Horace's Satyr V contains the following lines spoken by Ulysses:

What? Shall I give the wall to such a base
Inferior Rascal as old Damon was?
At Troy I ever scorn'd it, there did I
Contend with Great ones.

A play called Thomaso (ca. 1654) by Thomas Killigrew (1612-1683), printed in London in 1664, contains the following line spoken by the character Carlo:

I have seen one of those painted staves disarm a Scarlet Cloke, and command him into the stocks without resistance; and here they are so sullen they will not give the wall to Saint Jago, unless he be painted upon it.

A song in the 1679 printing of the Jacobean-era play The Knight of Malta (ca. 1616) contains the following stanza:

I'll pledge thee my Corporal, were it a Flagon
After Watch fiercer, than George did the Dragon,
What blood we loose i' th' Town, we gain i' th' Tuns,
Furr'd Gowns, and flat Caps, give the wall to Guns
Each toss his Cann, until his throat be mellow,
Drink, laugh, and sing, the Soldier has no fellow.

A 1757 English translation of the German author Paul Hentzner's 1612 account of his 1598 travels across England says:

The English are serious like the Germans, lovers of shew ... They excell in dancing and music, for they are active and lively, though of a thicker make than the French ... they give the wall as the place of honour ...

The 1617 printing of the Latin original from 1598 says:

ire prope murum honoratior eis locus

, which translates roughly to

to go near the wall [is] a more honored place to/for him

So it seems that "giving the wall" to signify respect or honor goes back over 400 years in English.

Switching to Latin, we can trace the phrase "give the wall" back 2000 years to Emperor Claudius (10 BCE - 54 CE). A Latin thesaurus from 1573 cites Claudius' autobiography for the phrase

Dare murum sceleri

, roughly

to give the wall to the guilty

Claudius' original works apparently are no longer extant, so we do not have enough context to interpret the meaning of the phrase, but at least can see that it was a saying, 2000 years ago.

A Latin-German dictionary of idioms from 1818 translates

Dare murum sceleri


die Bösen schützen

, which Google translates to

protect the bad guys

, so this idiom seems to span languages as well as time.

In summary:

  • To "give the wall" means to respect, defer, yield, protect
  • The idiom goes back 2000 years and can be found in multiple languages
  • The idiom seems to have been quite common in the 17th century

It rains a lot in London, and many of the buildings have eaves that can shelter people from the rain if they are underneath them. However, they're not terribly large eaves, so in order to gain shelter from the rain as you're walking along, you'd need to walk right up against the wall. As a result, if two people walking in opposite directions along a given wall come up against each other, one person is going to need to step out away from the wall to allow the other person to pass.

In this context, then, to "give the wall" would be to be a person who voluntarily steps out away from the wall to allow the other person to pass, while "to take the wall" would be to be a person who forces the other person to step out away from the wall instead.

Note that this may be an archaic meaning, however - nowadays people have umbrellas!

  • That's interesting, Nick. I've lived in England all my life but I've never heard "someone who gives the wall". Is it specifically a London expression?
    – BoldBen
    May 14, 2019 at 12:29
  • 1
    It may indeed be archaic – the quoted passage actually comes from Samuel Johnson, by way of Boswell, and Johnson's point is of course that the distinction between those who gave and those who took the wall is already a memory from "the last age."
    – Nanigashi
    May 14, 2019 at 16:42

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