Academy of Fencing Masters Blog

Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Why is fencing called fencing?

Why fencing is called fencingGoogle “fencing” and you’ll get results that look like this:

  • “Top Notch Temporary Fencers”
  • “Fence Builders Inc.”
  • “The Best 10 Fences and Gates”

Obviously these results aren’t related to the kind of fencing that we all know and love, but rather to tall structures that enclose an outdoor area. When you think about it, it’s odd that these two very different things – swords and enclosures – have the same name.

Even fencers who have been fencing for years often don’t realize the origin of the term “fencing”, and the story of how the word came about is a fascinating one to say the least.

Why not call it “sword fighting”?

Traditionally, fencing schools taught so much more than swords – that’s the reason that it the term “sword fighting” wasn’t sufficient. Here’s a sample of what the first fencing schools taught:

  • Shields
  • Daggers
  • Pikes
  • Spears
  • Firearms (this came later obviously)

Though fencing today only refers to martial sport combat that utilizes swords, originally fencing was a much larger concept. Keep in mind that fencing as a thing goes back to the original schools of fence in Europe. The most famous of these was headquartered in Spain, though they spread across Europe like wildfire during the 15th century. Diego de Valera published the book Treatise on Arms between 1458 and 1471, and it remains one of our oldest texts on the subject of fencing. You can still view it today! Included in this book are instructions for a wide variety of weapons, but it’s publication marks the official birth of fencing as an art and a science.

At the same time it’s hard to argue that it should be called “sword fighting” since it in today’s world that encompasses so much more. The term “sword fighting” turns out to be just as broad today as the word “fencing” was in those original fencing schools! Think about it – if you told someone over lunch that you were taking a sword fighting class, that could mean all kinds of things. In today’s culture, people are likely to think that you’re either training to fight for King Arthur with big broad swords and shields, or that you’re working on your samurai skills in the style of the Japanese swordsman. They might even think that you’re training to become a Jedi with a lightsaber.

The word that we have today for modern sport epee, foil, and sabre is very narrow in what it means. When you tell someone that you practice fencing, they generally have a good idea of what you’re talking about (even if they don’t get the details!)

Etymology of the word fencing

Ok, so that’s why it’s not called sword fighting, but why is it called fencing?

Fencing derives from the Latin word “defensa”, which means “protection”. When the word moved into Old French, it transformed into “defens”, again meaning to protect. During the 15th century, the English shortened it to “fens” (because English does so many things to so many words!).  The “schools of defense” became known as “schools of fencing” as the particular rules and peculiarities of fencing  started to become codified.

To fence is to practice “defence”

Given that explanation, it’s easy to see why fencing, as in sword fighting, is the same word as fencing, as in a protective barrier. Both are rooted in the art of defense.

What’s really fascinating is that this isn’t the case in other languages! The origin of the word in French, Spanish, German, Italian, and others is completely different. Here’s a quick rundown of the term for fencing in a wide variety of languages that aren’t English.

  • French
    • Escrime
    • Derives from the old French “escremie”, which means “combat”. French is of course the official language of fencing.
  • Italian
    • Scherma
    • Derives from the Lombard word “skirmen” and the Frankish “skirmijan” which means to protect, shield, or cover.
  • Spanish
    • Esgrima
    • The Spanish goes back to those same origins as the Italian and the French – meaning to protect or cover.
  • German
    • Fechten
    • Derived from the old German word “fehtan” for “fight”. You can even hear how this word leads to the English word “fight” if you say it out loud.
  • Greek
    • ξιφασκία (xifaskía)
    • There are a whole family of words in Greek related to fighting and swordplay that go with this!
  • Japanese
    • 剣術 – Kenjutsu
    • The first symbol is “ken” and means “sword”, where the second is “art(manship)”, so kenjutsu is literally “swordsmanship”. It’s important to note that this word isn’t just applied to fencing though – Japan of course has its own rich culture of swordsmanship that’s separate from European fencing.
    • フェンシング (fensing)
    • This second Japanese term for fencing is borrowed from the English and is used often for sport fencing particularly.
  • Chinese
    • 击剑 – jijian 
    • The first character means “hit”, while the second means “sword, dagger or sabre”. So literally this means “hitting with sword”, or “fencing”. Thanks to Seok for correcting our initial version!
  • Korean
    • 펜싱  – pensing
    • The first character means “pen” and the second is a sound effect meaning “zoom”. The Korean word for sport fencing is a transliteration of the English word for fencing, but the meaning behind it – “pen zoom” is pretty fantastic!
  • Hebrew
    • סַיִף  – saif
    • The Hebrew word for fencing is literally translated “ending” or “finishing”
  • Arabic
    • مبارزة – mubāraza
    • Meaning “fight or duel”, but it’s closely related to the words for “hero” and “champion” – which is pretty cool!
  • Russian
    • фехтование – fextovánije
    • This Russian word for fencing is derived from the German word for sport fencing – fechten. How cool that languages borrow from each other!
  • American Sign Language
    • There’s no official sign for fencing in American Sign Language, but spelling the word “fencing” along with using a mime-like finger motion to indicate a parry and thrust is a common way of indicating our sport.

This is only a small list of some of fencing words that we found and thought to be interesting, but as fencing is practiced all over the world, there are surely other words that are fascinating as well – this list is anything but inclusive! We’d love to learn more words for fencing from around the world.

In fencing clubs and competitions around the world, fencing is about discipline, self-improvement, and camaraderie. Though the word may have many meanings, one thing is for sure – we love the sport of fencing!

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1 Comment

  1. Angelo

    Fantastic!
    Thanks

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