Sometimes the obvious assumption about the story behind a word isn’t so obvious, leading to a moment best described by the great philosopher Homer Simpson as, “Doh!”
So it is with the sport of fencing, whose name I always assumed must obviously be based on the word fence, as in those things that might or might not make good neighbors. But a few minutes of rumination led to flights of fancy involving French aristocrats fighting with pickets—the kind of speculation that yields the most interesting, most commonplace and most wrong of folk etymologies—and reminded me that assumptions, like fences, too often say more about the person making them than their subjects.
As it turns out, there was a little right in my wrong. Fencing is first spotted in the mid-1400s as a shortened version of defencing as in making a defensive action or putting up a resistance. Fence is similarly derived, a truncation of the familiar defense (another, parallel act of compression gives us fend, as in “to fend off” an attack). All of this would probably come more readily to those who are a bit quicker on the uptake than I, or speak the Queen’s English and spell defence-with-a-‘c’, not to mention fencing enthusiasts surely familiar with the early manuals of the sport which were titled or subtitled simply “The Art of Defence.”
Incidentally, the word fence itself has its own twisty history. The common contemporary use of the word to indicate an enclosure or an objects serving as a defense or demarkation emerged more than a century later. And in another century we see the first recorded use of a fence referring to one who deals in stolen goods, a bit of criminal underworld slang based on the idea that the nefarious transactions were being made behind the defense of secrecy and concealment.
With its origins in self-defense and dueling, fencing was originally a killing art, and it took centuries to evolve into the graceful, posh sport we see today. Teaching fencing was banned in the city of London well into the 1800s, with a punishment of 40 days in jail because, as the law stated:
forasmuch as fools who delight in mischief do learn to fence with buckler and thereby are the more encouraged to commit their follies it is provided and enjoined that none shall hold school for nor shall teach the art of fencing ~~with buckler within the city by night or by day and if any so do he shall be imprisoned for forty days~~
Writers, those other fools and reprobates, quickly found the figurative uses of fence and fencing impossible to resist. In addition to literal swordplay throughout his plays, Shakespeare has Falstaff make his case for his manner of argument by saying
This is the right fencing grace, my lord:
tap for tap, and so part fair.
In other words, tit-for-tat, lunge and parry, is also how the sharp debating game is played.
And in Pericles, Shakespeare (and possibly various co-authors) take advantage of the tantalizing combination of conflict and sex in the fencing metaphor when he/they have the Bawd, the mistress of a brothel, ask:
Pray you, without any more virginal fencing, will you use him kindly?
We do tend to love our conflict metaphors, and verbal fencing has become almost as conversationally commonplace as verbal sparring and verbal jabs , cliches perhaps best to avoid without some elaboration, as John Banville provides when he writes in his merciless novel The Untouchable that
Our exchanges were not so much conversations as a kind of brittle raillery, like fencing matches between two fond but wary friends.
Or, better, raid from the rich language of the sport of fencing, mostly liberated from the French, with its ripostes and trompement, whip-overs and Zornhaut…a subject deserving of its own show.
Surprisingly, the other most common metaphorical fence, the one bearing the weight of the now practically proverbial fence sitter, or one who is on the fence, unable or unwilling to make a commitment, has only been documented to 1828. H. L. Mencken perhaps captured the spirit best when he wrote that
A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground.
But today, when there is so much talk of border walls (which are, and would be, mostly fences), I have to come back around to Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall”.
In this well-known, many-layered poem, Frost’s narrator meets his neighbor each spring to repair the wall between their properties. And during that time, his otherwise friendly neighbor transforms into an “old-stone savage armed” who “moves in darkness” of his own creation, insisting on the received wisdom that “good fences make good neighbors.” The neighbor might be wielding a philosophical broadsword of sorts, but the narrator is armed with a saber, asking:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”
But the neighbor, comfortable in his confines and penned in by his assumptions, simply repeats his father’s adage and moves on, the fence firmly in place. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?