On the Origin of Clichés: Stonewall

October 14, 2011 § 3 Comments

A stone wall

The first recorded use of the word “stonewall” in relation to a penalty dates to the early 1890s, and can be found in the august pages of the Hinckley & Bosworth Argus, in a match report on the unsuccessful defence of the Sibson Senior Shield by Sheepy Magna Town. The Smagmen, as they were known locally, went down 5-2 in the final, having been controversially denied a spot-kick early in the second half with the scores level at two apiece. Town’s centre-forward, Colin Barometre, burst into the opposing penalty area and appeared to be tripped by an opponent. As sport editor George Pennywroth noted:

It was a stonewall decision; as clear as penalty as anybody present will have or could ever hope to see. So evident was the offence that the defender began to apologise profusely to the prone Barometre before realising that play had continued. A general air of confusion pervaded the ground, but failed to perturb Mr Cossetry, who was supremely confident in his own mistake. To compound the injustice, Pinwall scored minutes later from an incorrectly awarded throw-in.

It should first be noted that the term “stonewall”, as used here, applies not to the penalty claim itself but to the decision. In fact, “stonewall” has been used in this vein — as an infrequent alternative for “obvious” or “straightforward” — since at least the 1300’s. Chaucer, in the only surviving fragment of ‘The Ostler’s Tale’, writes “So pleyne and stonwalle seemeth it to mee/ Sure onlee bastardde blynd men could not see”, and it has been suggested by scholars that “stonewall” was removed from an early draft of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, replaced by “clear as daye”. The word also appears in the Q1 version of Hamlet, in which the eponymous Dane laments: “To be, or not to be, aye there’s the point. / To die, to sleep, is that all? Stone wall.”

Calamity Flan, Professor of Necrosemiotics at the University of Warwick, believes that the phrase originated in the course of the construction of dry stone walls in Northern Ireland during the early 9th or 10th centuries. By her theory, when the route for a wall was immediately obvious, it was described as “cut”. This led to the term “a clear and cut dry stone wall” — i.e., one constructed along a straightforward route — which then evolved through usage and natural erosion into the phrases “clear-cut”, “cut and dried” and “stonewall”. Critics, however, have dismissed this suggestion as being speculative, fanciful and, to quote one letter to the Telegraph, “as lacking in either fundamental evidential support or coherent and logical sense as a Howard Webb penalty decision”. Further academic opinion is scarce.

Whatever the origins of the word, the incorporation of the phrase into the language of football is often attributed to notorious referee Gulliver Wahl, who was legendary in the late nineteenth century for his maverick approach to officiating. Described by one contemporary as “perhaps six-and-a-half feet tall, with the temperament of a bear, the voice of an avalanche, and a moustache that could happily house a dragoon of Teutonic hussars, and their horses”, he terrorised players, fans, and occasionally equipment throughout a long and remarkable career. On one notable occasion Wahl dismissed two players for adopting “an inappropriately insouciant attitude” to kick-off, while on another, a particularly fraught corner ended with him booking the left-hand goalpost for obstruction. It is not difficult to imagine how the implacable, stony Mr Wahl might have inspired one local reporter to pluck an obscure word from a dusty shelf, brush it down, and send it back into the world, there to give expression to the outrage of generations to come.

In current parlance, the term is generally used either alone, or in conjunction with similar terms: “blatant”, “obvious”, and so on. Nevertheless, a few commentators and writers have attempted to expand on the idea. Ron Atkinson greatly enjoyed the opportunity the cliché afforded him, describing an Indian linesman as a “stone-wallah”, and famously remarking of a referee from the far East that: “if anybody should know what a bloody stone wall looks like he should”. He later apologised to the Vietnamese FA.

A less controversial example comes from the 1983 John Menzies Northumberland Invitational semi-final, between Acomb Olympic and an enigmatic team known only as The Claypots. Local radio carried the game at short notice following the cancellation of the north-eastern heat of How Big Are Your Marrows?, and after just five minutes their scratch commentary team – Clive and Bob, surnames unrecorded – were presented with a clear handball on the Claypots line:

CLIVE: That wasn’t just stonewall. That was fortified stone, mortar, buttresses, turrets, arrow slits, murder holes, a barbican, a National Trust restoration, a school trip with a remarkable number of jam sandwiches, an out-of-work actor in tights lamenting what became of his career, and an overpriced gift shop.

BOB: Quite right, Clive. That shout was literally Hadrian’s Wall.

No penalty was awarded.


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§ 3 Responses to On the Origin of Clichés: Stonewall

  • Jude says:

    I think it started off, as you say in the first example, as someone ‘stonewalling’ something, i.e. blocking a decision, refusing to co-operate or supply information — or in this case, a penalty decision.

    As soon as pundits start saying it (wrongly, I believe), the whole nation caught on and it’s turned into meaning ‘obvious/blatant’. Annoys me every time they say it — especially because most of the time it’s not even a blatant penalty.

  • Chris Owen says:

    If it wasn’t October, I’d say this is a stonewall April Fool’s joke!
    True or not: Thanks for the enjoyable read.

  • Scott Oliver says:

    Very good, Andy. Love a bit of false erudition.

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