What’s a ceiling?

What do we mean by “ceiling”?

The word is defined as:

1 the upper interior surface of a room or other similar compartment
2 an upper limit set on prices, wages, or expenditure
3 the maximum altitude that a particular aircraft can reach, or
4 Nautical the inside planking of a ship’s bottom and sides

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word comes from the 14th century Middle English word “celynge,” which referred to the act of “paneling, any interior surface of a building.” It borrows from the 12th century Middle French verb “celer”, which means “to conceal, cover with paneling.”

The word was probably influenced by the Latin “cælum”, meaning heaven or sky, but celer can be directly traced to the Latin “celare” (to hide, conceal), which is related to the word cell.

The word “cell” meant “small room, store room, or hut.” The word has counterparts in the Old Irish “cuile” (cellar), the Gothic “hulistr” (covering), and the Old English “heolstor” (lurking-hole, cave, covering). According to the Dictionary:

Earliest sense [of “cell”] is for monastic rooms, then prison rooms (1722). Used in 14c., figuratively, of brain “compartments;” used in biology 17c. of various cavities, but not in modern sense of “basic structure of living organisms” until 1845. Meaning “small group of people working within a larger organization” is from 1925. Cell body is from 1878; cell division from 1882; cell membrane from 1870 (but cellular membrane is 1773); cell wall from c.1848.

In political circles, when we talk about “ceilings,” we typically mean “upper limit,” like an upper limit on change. Indeed, one might read that connotation into my first post.

But when I describe the systems of domestic and international governance as a “ceiling,” I actually mean something much broader. Ceilings as roofs can serve a useful function of protecting from the elements. Ceiling as a verb draws attention to the actions of a maker or makers. Ceilings as heavens remind us of our aspirations. Ceilings as coverings can obscure the true nature of the room or state we are in. Ceilings as cells can be places of enslavement or enlightenment.

Systems of governance can be any of these things. For instance, systems of old age insurance and paid time off can enrich our lives and help us reach our potential. But systems of current campaign finance law obscure the fundamentally corrupt nature of modern politics.

I’ll take a broad view of the ceilings that I discuss in this blog. We can only ascertain if these ceilings are liberating or oppressive through examining their specific context.

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