The Changing Meaning of Mural

By Maeve Maddox

Because I am used to thinking of a mural as a painting on a wall, I was startled to hear a local radio announcer refer to a contest for artists to submit designs to paint “murals” on storm drains.

Storm drains are on the ground. They are also rather small. I think of murals as being quite large.

Here’s the definition from the OED:

mural (noun): a painting executed directly on to a wall or ceiling as part of a scheme of decoration.

I was surprised to see ceiling included in the definition. Mural derives from the Latin word for wall: murus. The Latin adjective is muralis, “of or relating to a wall.”

According to the OED, mural in the context of painting is an American coinage dating from 1908. In earlier British usage, a mural was “a fruit tree grown against and fastened to a wall.”

In US urban settings, mural is used in its customary sense, but recently it has come to be used of paintings made on sidewalks, on streets, and even on such things as benches.

Here are some examples from news stories originating in different parts of the country:

Last year, the CARE neighborhood in partnership with Banner Neighborhoods painted a street mural in the intersection at the south side of the market. —Maryland.

University Facilities and Services is coordinating a project featuring storm drain murals to encourage pollution awareness. —Illinois.

Monroe Municipal Mural on sidewalk —Georgia.

This year another ten local artists were chosen to paint murals on ten storm drains in the Springfield area. —Missouri.

The new FABnyc sidewalk mural, fashioned by Ecuadorian artist Raúl Ayala is among our favorite public artworks to surface this year. —New York.

“Only rain down the drain,” reads a mural painted on a concrete bench on the west side of Matthews Street halfway between Green Street and Springfield Avenue. —Illinois.

This expanded meaning for mural has resulted in the creation of the retronym “wall mural.”

For Drew and me, painting wall murals has been a great source of extra income.

It’s finally time to put the finishing touches on the Library Wall Mural and seal it.

We completed a big full color wall mural in Naga Gallery.

Purists may cringe at the idea of “sidewalk murals,” but if the painting on a ceiling can be called a mural, I suppose that a large painting on the floor or the ground might reasonably share the term. To refer to a painting or design on a small surface such as a bench or a storm drain as a mural, however, seems to be an unnecessary stretch of meaning.

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4 Responses to “The Changing Meaning of Mural”

  • Mike Barker

    I have also heard people talking about a rural mural, or an urban mural, in which case they seem to be using the word as a version of landscape?

  • venqax

    Blech. It is simply another example of people not really knowing what something means and using it anyway. Pound a nail with your shoe because you don’t know what a hammer is for. Screw the screw with a butter knife because you don’t know about screwdrivers– (you’re using one to scrape paint off of the counter.) There are worse sins in the world but change via ignorance is frustrating and unhelpful. Now when someone refers to a mural, you really can’t be sure what they mean and have to demand further description and explanation. How is that supposed to aid communication?

    The most deflating thing is that these are “writings” by professional or semi-professional writers of some sort (one presumes, anyway). But, as we see with other examples, whatever the requirements are for being a writer actually being competently acquainted with the English language is not one of them. I guess I have a mural of a flag on this postage stamp.

  • Festus Abiatar

    Hey, Maeve!

    I’m a second language speaker of English.

    Can you, please, explain to me why the construction “I was startled to hear a local radio announcer refer to a contest for artists…” calls for the plural form of the verb “refer” rather than the singular one (refers) when the subject of this verb (a local radio announcer) is singular?
    And, would I be correct if I use the participle form of the verb; i.e. “I was startled to hear a local radio announcer referring to a contest for artists…”?

    Thanks!

  • Festus Abiatar

    Hey, Maeve!

    I’m a second language speaker of English.

    Can you, please, explain to me why the construction “I was startled to hear a local radio announcer refer to a contest for artists…” calls for the plural form of the verb “refer” rather than the singular one (refers) when the subject of this verb (a local radio announcer) is singular?
    And, would I be correct if I use the participle form of the verb; i.e., “I was startled to hear a local radio announcer referring to a contest for artists…”?

    Thanks!

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