The Most Pressing Question of our Age: What is a Wall?


Not since Bill Clinton infamously wondered what the meaning of the word “is” is has America been so caught up in the definition of a word: What is a “wall?” 

Look to your left and right at this very moment and you will probably see a wall, but what is it? Have you even bothered to give this vitally important question any thought?  

Many walls connect to a ceiling, which raises the question, what is a ceiling? Paul Simon famously observed that “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor.” But if you live on the top floor, Simon is flat-out wrong. 

A ceiling, regardless of whether it’s another man’s floor is actually a horizontal wall above one’s head supported by vertical walls, usually four. Viewed in this light, it may be said that a floor is a horizontal wall below one’s feet used for walking, or just standing around aimlessly. It must be noted that depending on which floor of a building you’re on, the wall beneath your feet (aka floor) may be supported itself by other vertical walls, usually four (see above), or it may rest on solid ground, in which case vertical walls, still usually four, to support it are not needed. 

My point is rather obvious, so I won’t waste the reader’s time by stating it. However, I do feel that given the current controversy over what actually constitutes a wall – for example, would mere “steel slats” do? – that we should turn to the dictionary for guidance, and not just any dictionary. This is America, and the question at hand as to what qualifies as a wall is as American as a mass shooting, therefore only the American Heritage Dictionary will do.  (The Oxford Dictionary, having originated in the United Kingdom, would provide a questionable European perspective and serve only to further muddy the already fetid waters.) 

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “wall” as “an upright structure (oops, this kills my theory that ceilings and floors are walls, sorry) of masonry, wood, plaster, or other material serving to enclose, divide, or protect an area…”  

This definition may be helpful to some, though is ultimately insufficient to deep thinkers, because in stating that a wall may be made from “masonry, wood, plaster, or other material” (italics mine), it suggests, wrongly it seems to me, that a wall can be made of anything, even cheese.

For a moment, let’s go with the cheese wall example. Assuming its purpose is to be eaten, perhaps with a corresponding wall of saltines, a cheese wall could serve as an appetizing novelty. But would any nation, except possibly France, build a wall of cheese, even hard cheese, to protect its borders from hungry refugees who would simply eat their way through?  

In terms of border security, by “wall” we generally mean “barrier,” or if not barrier, then barricade. It would serve us well then to remember that while a barricade is a barrier, a barrier is not necessarily a barricade.  A barrier may be a common fence, railing, or row of shrubbery, none of which is a barricade, or a wall for that matter. Under ordinary circumstances, this would bring me to the fascinating subject of partitions and ramparts, but at this pivotal time in our nation’s history the conversation is moot.

The sobering truth is that I don’t know what a wall is and neither do you. Perhaps a wall is like pornography in that it’s impossible to define definitively but you know it when you see it. Unless you don’t and end up walking into it head first. And that really hurts.