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Speaking of Walls Posted by on Jan 9, 2019 in Culture, English Language, News

We’re hearing a lot about walls these days. The President of the US wants one built along the southern border with Mexico, Congress doesn’t. Some days they substitute the word fence, but the meaning doesn’t change very much.  It may be the single most controversial topic in the English-speaking world right now. Walls have also been the subject of many famous English idioms and phrases for centuries. This is why headline writers and pundits, those people with opinions who turn up on news programs, always have a quote ready when the discussion turns to walls, fences, and borders.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

First of all, a wall is not a fence. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a wall is a fortification consisting of a solid long, vertical structure intended to protect and divide an area. A fence is a barrier between two areas consisting of posts and, usually, wire. More specifically, you can see through a fence, but a wall is solid.

Let’s look at some of the many English idioms and phrases that people use when talking about walls and fences, and what they mean.

  • Just another brick in the wall – From the Pink Floyd song, this refers to people and events which contribute to a feeling of isolation. The wall, in this case, is a figurative wall around the heart.
  • Backs to the wall – A difficult situation with no easy way out. This is a popular sports phrase but can apply to any almost impossible problem.
  • Bouncing off the walls – To be excitable and crazy. Throwing a rubber ball against a wall will result in it bouncing in any direction, making it difficult to catch or control.
  • Bang your head against a wall – A futile action which will result only in pain.
  • Being a fly on the wall – To eavesdrop, to listen or see something which you are not allowed to.
  • Breaking the fourth wall – In theater, film, or television when a character interacts with the audience. The fourth wall is the invisible barrier between the actors and the audience.
  • Drive up the wall – To go crazy.
  • Feeling walled in – Trapped. Very similar to…
  • Walls closing in – Things are getting worse.
  • Hit a wall – To be unable to literally or figuratively proceed any further.
  • Like nailing Jello to a wall – An impossible task. Don’t even try it.
  • The writing is on the wall – An obvious sign that something unpleasant is about to happen. This is a reference to the Book of Daniel when a disembodied hand appeared to King Belshazzar and wrote a prophecy of doom on the wall in front of him.

As you can see, there are almost no instances in which a wall is a good thing. If you like it when a fictional character speaks directly to you, remember that they had to break a wall to do it.

Fences may have a better association, however. Here are some common English phrases relating to fences.

  • Good fences make good neighbors – Respecting boundaries and personal space is important.
  • Let’s mend fences – To be willing to reconcile and improve relationships.
  • Sit on the fence – To be undecided about something. If you sit on a fence, you will never take one side or another.
  • The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence – Believing it always seems that other people are better off, even when it is not true.
  • Swing for the fences – A baseball-related expression meaning to put all your effort into something. A baseball player who swings for the fences is deliberately trying to hit a home run.
  • Don’t fence me in – I don’t wish to be contained or confined. A famous Cole Porter song about personal freedom.

Hmmm…Maybe walls and fences aren’t really such good things after all.

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  1. Lady Blanco: