On the fence about walls and fences
At a press conference earlier this month, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer came up against a wall, as it were, when he presented some images of Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the US border with Mexico, a core promise of his campaign. But reporters quickly noticed that the images, showing a steel structure that allowed light through, looked much more like…fences. He then battled with journalists over the definition of walls and fences.
Spicer may not be alone, though, in his porous distinctions, for a wall isn’t exactly a wall and fence not a fence—etymologically speaking. Let’s scale the history of the words wall and fence:
The foundations of wall
The word wall has been standing in the English language since its earliest records, but it’s not an original construction. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, wall was an Old Saxon and Anglo-Frisian borrowing of the Latin vallum, a ‘rampart’ or ‘line of palisades’, likely a collective form of vallus, a ‘stake’ or ‘post’. The Latin vallum also yields interval, literally a ‘space between palisades or ramparts’, later extended to more abstract intervals of distance and time. Etymologically, then, a wall is, well, something like a fence.
The OED first attests wall in the ninth-century Vespasian Psalter, which contains an important Old English gloss of the Book of Psalms. Here, wall refers to a ‘fortification’, such as defends a city or castle. The wall of a building is evidenced not long after around 900, in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Talking to walls?
Given its long history in the language, wall has inspired a number of expressions in English. To go to the wall is ‘to give way, succumb, or fail’, which philologist Ernest Weekley traced back to days before sidewalks when important people travelled down the middle of roads, forcing lowlier folks to go to the wall of a city. To give the wall, conversely, emerges with sidewalks, permitting a person to walk closer to the wall—and thus further away from the muck of the street. To be up the wall is to be ‘furious’ or ‘crazy’, one of the meanings shared by off the wall, which may originate as a sports idiom characterizing the wild ricochet of a ball off a surface.
And during his presser, Spicer may have wanted to go over the wall, which could mean ‘escape’ (though also its opposite), originally a prison reference.
Sides of the fence
The word fence, which appears by the early 1300s, is not as much a construction as a destruction. Fence is clipped from defence—or defense for American-English spellers, though both fence and defence were historically spelled with the letter ’s’. Defence hopped the etymological fence from the Old French defense, ultimately grounded in the Latin defendere, meaning and source of the English ‘defend’. The verb defendere links de-, ‘away’, and fendere, ‘to strike’, hence ‘to ward off’. Offend and offense also derive from fendere but feature a form of the prefix ob-, ‘against’.
The OED first finds fence in a Middle English chronicle by Robert Mannyng in the expression ‘to stand at fence’, or standing in a position of self-defence. By the 1400s, fence had expanded to ‘protection’ and ‘security’ as well as a specific form of them, e.g., a ‘bulwark’. The early 1500s saw English erect the modern fence, that is, a barrier along a yard or property—depending, at least if you’re White House press secretary, how you define it.
The early 1500s also saw fence applied to swordplay, with fence referring to the sport of fencing by the 1530s. Fencing itself hits the record later in the 16th-century. More colorfully, fence once named elephant tusks in the early 1700s, apparently after a French use of défense and on the notion of a tusk’s protective functions and, perhaps, swordlike appearance. Later in the 1700s, fence also doubled as an ‘involucre’, which is the leaf-like structure you’d have noticed if you ever looked under a dandelion flower.
To be on the fence, originally an American expression, is to be uncommitted or indecisive, evoking the image of a person sitting atop a fence, ready to jump down to either side, hence ‘ambivalent’. And when it comes to the differences between walls and fences, Sean Spicer seems to know a thing or two about being on the fence—or is that on the wall?