August 12, 2013

Case File #013.08.12: WALL

“Stone walls do not a prison make,” wrote the seventeenth-century poet Richard Lovelace, and while we might agree with the philosophical sentiments that underlie his words, we'd be foolish to deny that a well-built wall usually makes a pretty good physical impediment. In fact, if we look at the history of the word wall, we find that the idea of wall-as-barrier has been there all along. Derived from the Latin vallum, which meant “palisade” or “bulwark,” the word was spelled weall in the Old English era and was used to mean both “rampart” and “levee or dike.” When it passed into Middle English in the twelfth century, its form changed to walle and it took on the additional meanings of “a side of a room or building, typically connecting the floor to the ceiling or the foundation to the roof” and “any continuous vertical structure that encloses or divides an area of land,” and the verb senses of the word—that is, “to divide or separate with or as if with a wall” and “to enclose, surround, confine, or block with or as if with a wall”—came into use during the thirteenth century. The form of both the verb and the noun changed to the current wall around the end of the fifteenth century, and not long after, the noun also took on the additional and more general senses of “any material layer enclosing a space” (as in the abdominal wall) and “anything that resembles a wall in structure or function” (as in socioeconomic wall and wall of silence).

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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