Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
I was surprised to learn this week that the selling of stolen goods is an Olympic sport. That surprise was then quickly tempered when someone nearby pointed out that it wasn’t that kind of fencing. Olympic fencers were instead dueling with epees, sabers, and foils, which makes much more sense.
And then there was another surprise: I learned that both types of fencing — as well as the white picket or chain link type of fences you might see around the neighborhood — all come from the same etymological source. Fence and fencing derive from the word defend, which isn’t terribly surprising, but they’re also related to a few other words you might not have connected them to.
Fencing came to Middle English, via French, from the Latin defendere “to protect,” which is made up of the prefix de- “away from” and fendere “to strike.” (And yes, offendere, the root of offend, reduces to “to strike in the direction of.”) This gave English a whole family of words that have stuck around to modern times: defend, defence/defense, defender, defending, etc.
It isn’t difficult to see how a noun like defence (the British spelling) could be misheard as “the fence,” and that’s what happened: Defence was shortened to just fence during the 14th century. Fence began its life meaning just the same as the abstract noun defence, but then it found new life and a new physical form. If you’re going to defend a structure or an area from intruders, you might construct a barrier around it. By the mid-15th century, that type barrier was being called a fence, as it is today.
If you don’t have a fence to hold back an assault, you might be forced to defend yourself with, say, a sword. At the end of the 16th century, that type of swordplay, which would grow into its own athletic discipline, had come to be known as fencing too — from the reduction of self-defence.
And while some people were fencing in their properties and some were fencing on their properties, another group was using neither swords nor physical barriers to protect themselves — they were using secrecy. The notion that thieves would sell stolen their goods “under the defence of secrecy” is how, in the 17th century, fencing became a crime.
That takes us through a brief history of fencing, but it wasn’t the only member of the defend family to be shortened and reused. The verb fend is a shortening of defend, and essentially still means the same thing. And defender was shortened to fender, which (sorry, car enthusiasts) goes back way before the horseless carriage, even predating fencing: Since the end of the 13th century, fenders were objects hung over the sides of ships to protect them as they came into a dock. Car fenders got their name from their resemblance to ships’ fenders.
And there you have one big, eclectic family of related words: car fenders, the secret selling of stolen goods, a barrier to keep your dog in the yard, and the art of swordplay — not to mention a 1980s video game, a plaintiff’s courtroom counterpart, and the focus of half of every football team.
Featured image: BalanceFormCreative / Shutterstock
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now