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15 English Idioms and Metaphors About Boundaries, Walls and Fences

A retired lawyer, I'm fascinated by words, nuances of meanings & ideas. I’ve always enjoyed reading, languages, & writing, including poetry

Boundaries, Walls And Fences In English Proverbs And Sayings

The British do love their boundaries, to delineate the precise extent of their land and ownership. Over the years this has given rise to many English expressions and metaphors relating to fences, ditches, boundaries and walls.

You will find this English language article interesting if English is your first language, and if you are learning to speak English as a second language (ESL or ESOL , TESOL or even TSL ), you'll find it helpful to learn something new about the English language.

A Boundary Wall Outside Welsh Cottages

The front walls of these Welsh cottages form the boundary between public land (the pavement) and private land (the cottage and garden)

The front walls of these Welsh cottages form the boundary between public land (the pavement) and private land (the cottage and garden)

A Word of Explanation First - The Concept Of Boundaries And Fences And Why They Are Important

The UK does not Legally Recognize the Concept of Ownerless Land (i.e. Land Without an Owner)

(You Can Skip This Bit If You Want To Go Straight To The 15 Idioms Below).

England is a small country with a relatively large population. The system of land ownership evolved from the feudal system. After England was conquered in 1066, William the Conqueror claimed all the land as his, and he would give grants of land, distributing it to his important noblemen, who were barons and bishops, in return for fealty - faithfulness and service - which included each of them producing a certain number of men to fight, in times of war. The people living on the land within a fealty were allowed to farm it but had to give a certain percentage of the produce or the income from the sale of produce (a tax) to the nobleman who owned the land.

That is why there is no ownerless land in England – all land belongs to someone, and there is an efficient system of land registration, recording the owners of land and the area owned. The demarcation of land according to ownership is considered very important to landowners, and an aerial view of the country will show most areas neatly divided with hedges, walls, fences or ditches.

Antique Manuscript Indentures Showing The Ownership Of Land (Before Compulsory Registration At The Land Registry)

The indenture on the right shows a plan of the property

The indenture on the right shows a plan of the property

Ownership Of Land And Status Of Non-Owners

If someone who is not the owner of land still uses the land, they might be able to claim legal ownership after twelve years, if they can prove that they have enclosed it with a fence and have been openly (as opposed to secretly) occupying and cultivating it without the true landowner objecting. This is called adverse possession or squatter’s rights, and anyone occupying the land without the owner’s consent is called a squatter.

Anyone who enters on to land without the owner’s permission is called a trespasser. A property owner by law may use reasonable force to eject a trespasser, and this does not include shooting or seriously harming him, unless the owner is in genuine fear for the immediate physical safety of himself or his family. Thus it’s not all right to shoot a trespasser who is running away.

To Make A Claim Under Adverse Possession, The Land Must Be Enclosed And Cultivated

Here's an example of land that is both fenced and cultivated

Here's an example of land that is both fenced and cultivated

15 Expressions Which Relate To Land

1. To Sit On The Fence

Means:To be neutral or undecided about an issue

e.g. "When asked whether he believes the UK should leave the European Common Market, he sat on the fence, and would not say which way he intended to vote".

2. Beyond The Pale

The word Pale comes from the Latin word palus, meaning a stake or pole driven into the ground, and thus a fence.

Roman encampments were surrounded by a fence, and people living within the enclosure were protected by the law, whereas anyone living outside the fence (beyond the pale) was not protected, and was an outlaw.

In modern times, a Pale is a district or region lying within an imposed boundary.

So if someone's behaviour is described as Beyond the Pale, it means they are behaving in an outrageous or unacceptable way.

e.g. "The rude way she treats anyone she doesn't like is completely beyond the pale".

3. Beyond The Bounds

Means outside the limits (similar to Beyond the Pale, and the two idioms can be used iinterchangeably) -

e.g. "His behaviour is beyond the bounds", meaning it is beyond what is acceptable.

4. Setting Boundaries

Means setting limits to someone's behaviour

e.g. "It is necessary to set boundaries so that people know how far they can go - setting rules so that a person doesn't misbehave".

Setting Boundaries--A YouTube Video

Boundary Formed By A Row Of Trees And A Wooden Fence

This typical English park is bounded by both fence and trees, to separate it from the adjacent land

This typical English park is bounded by both fence and trees, to separate it from the adjacent land

5. To Score A Boundary

A cricketing term meaning hitting the ball so that it flies out of the field

e.g. "He scored a boundary and one of the onlookers had to throw the ball back onto the pitch".

6. Party Wall

A Party Wall is a wall which is shared between two adjacent properties and two owners

Sometimes this leads to boundary disputes and sometimes gives rise to party wall agreements - agreements concerning the use of the party wall, such as who can build against it and how high it should be.

e.g. "The two neighbours had a dispute about whether the party wall should be 5 ft. or 6ft high".

Party Wall Between Two Properties

When this house extension was built,  a party wall agreement was made that the adjoining home owner is permitted to build up against the wall at some time in the future

When this house extension was built, a party wall agreement was made that the adjoining home owner is permitted to build up against the wall at some time in the future

7. To Ring Fence

To ring fence something means to isolate it

e.g. "I've ring fenced that money for a nice holiday, so don't spend it on anything else."

A Metal Fence In The Park To Restrain Children From Wandering

8. A Fence

Means a person who receives stolen goods and sells them on to other people

e.g. "He wasn't a thief himself, but he made a good profit out of being a fence."

A Metal Fence

9. To Ditch Someone Or Something

To ditch someone means to get rid of someone

A ditch is an narrow open trench or hole, which has been dug into land on the edge of a field or pathway to supply or drain water, often to demarcate the ownership of land. Although in this sense it is a noun, ithe word "ditch" can also be used as a verb.

e.g."She ditched her boyfriend when she met someone new."

10. To Fence Someone In

To fence someone in means to restrain them

e.g."her parents were very strict and she felt fenced in"

11. Draw A Line

To draw a line means to make a demarcation theoretically

e.g. after an argument, you might "say let's draw a line on this and start anew."

12. Up The Wall

Up the wall means mad

e.g. "He behaves so strangely that I think he's completely up the wall."

13. Go To The Wall

Means To be ruined - if a business goes to the wall, it goes into dissolution or bankruptcy

e.g. "Because of the recession, the company was unable to pay it's debts and went to the wall."

A Garden Wall

14. A Wallflower

A wallflower is a flower that grows against walls

So a wallflower is a young lady who, in effect, sits against the wall during a dance - instead of dancing - normally this would be because she wasn't asked to dance.

e.g. "She didn't want to go to the party in case she was a wallflower."

Wallflowers In A Cottage Garden

15. To Feel Walled In

Means To feel constricted

e.g. "When she was ill in bed, she felt very walled in."

Berlin Wall - 1961 - 1989

There Are A Lot Of English Expressions Connected To Boundaries

© 2013 Diana Grant

Can You Think Of Any More English Expressions Relating To Boundaries? Or Have You Any Other Comments?

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on June 15, 2020:

An interesting article I enjoyed reading and learning about these idioms and metaphors.

James A Watkins from Chicago on February 17, 2020:

Thank you for this article. I enjoyed reading it.

Ferran Mestre on October 15, 2017:

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

Diana Grant (author) from London on September 01, 2016:

My favorite is rhyming slang, where you are given a shortened word, have to guess the full-length word, and then think what rhymes with it. An example is "where's my titfer?" Titfer is short for tit-for-tat, which rhymes with hat, so the meaning is "where's my hat?"

Mary Wickison from Brazil on June 29, 2016:

I lived in the UK for 20 years and some of these I hadn't heard before. I think much of it depends on the area you live in. When I first arrived from the US, I couldn't understand much of it as I lived in a small mining village in the midlands. Questions such as 'Ya alright me duck?' and 'Av you got a fag?' left me scratching my head in confusion.

Not to mention 'Gordon Bennett' and 'Alright Chuck'.

The English language can be confusing even if English is your mother tongue.

William Leverne Smith from Hollister, MO on September 10, 2014:

What fun! Thanks for sharing! You made me smile, for sure! ;-)

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