About This Word

brick wall

[brik wawl]

What does brick wall mean?

brick wall is variously used as a metaphor for a challenging obstacle or obstruction.

brick wall

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Where does brick wall come from?

While the building technology dates back many millennia, brick wall has referred to a literal wall made of bricks in the written record of the English language since at least the 1400s.

By the 1690s, a brick wall was already figuring in the saying running one's head against a brick wall, which now commonly goes by banging one's head against a brick wall. The expression likens a thwarted or futile goal to the immovability of a brick wall. As tennis great John McEnroe memorably said: "The important thing is to learn a lesson every time you lose. Life is a learning process and you have to try to learn what's best for you. Let me tell you, life is not fun when you're banging your head against a brick wall all the time.”

By the 1880s, brick wall was a figure of speech for an effort considered impassable or impossible—as well as an unresponsive or uncaring person (e.g., talking to a brick wall). Writer Oscar Wilde famously wrote: “I like talking to a brick wall—it’s the only thing in the world that never contradicts me!”

Come the early 20th century, brick wall was widespread enough to be considered a cliché for any challenging barrier or opposing force. The metaphorical brick wall remains a common, and still often useful and powerful, metaphor. A 2016 parenting memoir about raising a child with autism took Brick Wall as its title, for instance, as did a 2011 film about two women who are transgender.

Who uses brick wall?

Brick wall is extensively used in speech and writing in a range of metaphorical constructions. As noted, some authors and editors may look down upon uses of brick wall as clichés in formal writing.

We may say we hit a brick wall when we've run out of money or energy for a project. Or, if a loved one isn't acknowledging our feelings, we may say it's like talking to a brick wall. In these uses, brick wall may not indicate final defeat but rather extreme frustration or exasperation.

To see through a brick wall is "to be especially perceptive" and to run through a brick wall is "to be extremely powerful or rebellious."

The expression to hit a brick wall is so familiar that it's inspired its own verb form, evidenced since at least the early 2010s: to brick-wall, or "to get as far as one can go in pursuing some goal."

These brick walls are not to be confused with British rock band Pink Floyd's 1979 hit songs popularly known as "Another Brick in the Wall," which are about isolation, detachment, and anonymity.

For example

I hate when you’re talking to someone and you feel like you’re talking to a brick wall because they just do not care or can’t take 2 mins to listen to what you are saying

@harleighmckenna, March, 2018

The jet stream is a very strong force and pushing a balloon into it is like pushing up against a brick wall, but once we got into it, we found that, remarkably, the balloon went whatever speed the wind went.

Richard Branson, interviewed by NOVA , 2000

I still have the desire to do the job of acting. It’s just a matter of whether I’ll be allowed to do the job of acting that remains to be seen. There are only so many brick walls that I’m willing to beat my head on.

Gary Coleman, interviewed by The Celebrity Cafe, November, 2000

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