Samuel Johnson reports on making acquaintance with London in 1737 that
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.
This attention to detail may have been the result of an occasion in his infancy when Johnson ended up with his nose in the shite:
One day, when the servant, who used to be sent to school to conduct him home, had not come in time, he set out by himself, though he was then so near-sighted that he was obliged to stoop down on his hands and knees to take a view of the kennel [the open sewer in the middle of the street: the OED lists 1582 STANYHURST Ã†neis II. (Arb.) 55 Thee streets and kennels are with slayne carcases heaped], before he ventured to step over it. His schoolmistress, afraid that he might miss his way, or fall into the kennel, or be run over by a cart, followed him at some distance. He happened to turn about and perceive her. Feeling her careful attention as an insult to his manliness, he ran back to her in a rage, and beat her, as well as his strength would permit.
The OED again:
to give a person the wall: to allow a person the right or privilege of walking next the wall as the cleaner and safer side of a pavement, sidewalk, etc. Similarly, to have, take the wall (of a person), to have, take the inside position…
And comes up with some choice quotes:
?1537 Thersytes 150 Yes, yes, god wote they geve me the wall, Or elles with my clubbe I make them to fall. 1592 Arden of Feversham V. i, I haue made some go vppon wodden legges for taking the wall on me. 1621 T. WILLIAMSON tr. Goulart’s Wise Vieillard 95 The Persians had a law enioyning all men..to giue him [an elder] the wall when they mett him in the streetes.
As anyone who has noted my keen interest in pavement rage (posts on streetwalking and pavement proxemics) will know, the wall is a zone of contention between the English and the Spanish. The OED shows that this has long been so, at least from an English perspective:
1605 HEYWOOD If you know not Me E1b, Enter the Englishman, and Spaniard. Spa. The wall, the wall. Eng. Sblood Spaniard you get no wall here,..but since you will needs Haue the wall, Ile take the paynes to thrust You into the kennell. 1855 KINGSLEY Westw. Ho! xxv, The Spaniards..had..no room, in that narrow path, to use their pikes. The English had the wall of them; and to have the wall there, was to have the foe’s life at their mercy.
So what do the Spanish have to say? The Real Academia Española’s ridictionary is unfamiliar with this use of pared, and hence with the expression darle la pared a alguien, but evidence that Africa Minor is also aware of the concept is to be found in comments over at Ser mujer cuesta:
… la dama debe ir del lado interno para preservarla de salpicaduras y objetos que pudieran caer de balcones y/o ventanas.
A professor of sociology gave a different explanation to fellow-commenter ADN:
Es una costumbre de hace mucho, en que la mujer entraba primero a una casa, a modo de escudo humano, osea si habia un atentado era ella la q …
Oscar disputes this:
Decile a tu profesor de sociología que cambie de dealer, o que levante la puntería y largue el tetra…
Lo del lado de la pared es básicamente lo que dice Hurricane, agregaría que es para ponerla un poco más a cubierto de un accidente e incluso de algun toqueteo al pasar un auto…
And Juliana agrees, and points out that shite was a threat from above as well as below:
eso viene de la época en que la gente tenía la costumbre de arrojar cosas varias por la ventana (entre ellas, el contenido de las escupideras), y los caballeros caminaban del lado de afuera para preservar a las damas de recibir lo que viniera de arriba.
el iluso careta says the custom is of great antiquity:
CON RESPECTO A LA COSTUMBRE DE DARLE LA PARED A LA MUJER…ES DE VIEJA DATA…(MAS VIEJA QUE OSCAR Y YO JUNTOS…JAJAJA)
I wonder whether the Spanish habit of taking the wall during showers demonstrates a lack of faith in municipal drains, and hence a belief that Spain is still basically an undeveloped country. I think the custom of groups walking ranked along pavements, pushing other users into the road or making them wait to pass, also reflects a pre-modern mentality, but I don’t think Johnson mentioned it.
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If Javanese portray their common folk as cowards and fools, here’s a different view, taken from Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Historia
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Tres versos, cuatro chistes.
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