I am reading a story by Robert E. Howard, which contains the following line:

Drunk was John Kulrek, and the people gave back for him, murder in their souls; so he came and laughed at Moll Farrell across the body of her girl.

I tried all dictionaries I know, AI translators (DeepL) but I just cannot find out what "give back for him" means here.

To add a bit more context - the guy is formidable and people are scared of him, they are sucking up to him and letting him do anything he wants.

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    This text strikes me as real drivel. I see the very next line is “Zounds!” swore John Kulrek; "the wench has drowned herself, Lie-lip! Apparently a "lie-lip" was once a box, perforated at bottom., used for straining lye. But Howard seems to be using it as a general-purpose insult.You certainly won't learn anything about current English from this text. Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 12:22
  • I took it to mean that because John Kulrek was drunk (incapable), other people made the pay-back on his behalf. Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 12:25
  • @FumbleFingers Thanks! Would you mind explaining a bit more the insult, a lie-lip? Even knowing now what lye means, I cannot imagine any similar (current) insult.
    – Noraa
    Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 12:53
  • I guess that it's intended to mean liar. Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 15:44
  • Nora - from the context, I'm guessing what @kate said is correct. But I think I'd be willing to bet "lie-lip" was never actually used with that sense (except in Howard's imagination! :) Historically, he's right about people gave back for him, though - which today we'd probably express as people drew back for him. They "sullenly" made room for him to pass by, while thinking murderous thoughts about him which they were too cowed to do anything about. Commented Jan 17, 2023 at 16:38

1 Answer 1


An old-fashioned or archaic meaning of "to give back" is to retreat or fall back. In this context, they stepped back away from Kulrek to give him space.

The OED has under "give back": "2. intransitive. To retreat, fall back. Obsolete or archaic." One of their examples is from 1814 in Sophia Burrell's Theodora iv. ii "Give back—make way—Room for the prisoner's witness." This appears very similar, used with the preposition "for" to mean "fall back and make way for". ("give, v." OED Online, Oxford University Press, December 2022, www.oed.com/view/Entry/78553. Accessed 17 January 2023.)

For comparison, Merriam-Webster says "archaic: retire, retreat", with examples from PG Wodehouse and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

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