In a Word: Of Foils and Foibles

We all have our foibles; fencers doubly so.


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Senior 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.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in his journal, “Dread the collectors, whether of books, of shells, of coins, of eggs, of newspapers; they become alike trustless. Their hunger overrides their honesty. A forte always makes a foible.” That last sentence sounds a bit odd to modern ears — and it might have even in early-19th-century Massachusetts. But a closer look at the histories of the two main words in that statement shows that Thoreau might have been as familiar with the sword as with the pen.

This history starts with the Latin verb flere, meaning “to weep, to cry.” This became the adjective flebilis “lamentable” — literally “that is to be cried over.” In Old French, flebilis transformed into the word feble, meaning “weak” — and does that word like a little familiar? By the 12th century, the word had been absorbed into English as feeble “weak or lacking vigor physically, intellectually, or emotionally.”

But feeble isn’t the word Thoreau used.

Moving forward to the 16th century: As I noted in “Putting a Fence around Fencing,” it was in this century that swordplay as a discipline and a sport started to become popular. It was a pastime of aristocrats, though, and especially popular in France. So it should come as no surprise that most of the vocabulary of fencing comes from French.

In the describing the anatomy of a blade, the section closest to the hilt was called the fort “strong point,” because that section of the blade provided the fencer with the most leverage. (In the 1700s, an e was added to mirror the Italian forte.) The tip end of the blade, which was weaker in terms of leverage, was called the feble — the word we touched on before that became feeble.

By 1640, French feble in the fencing sense had come into English as foible, meaning “the weak part of the blade,” and by the 1670s it was being used metaphorically to describe a minor weakness or shortcoming in a person’s character. Today, you might refer to someones (possibly annoying) idiosyncrasies as their foibles.

So Thoreau, it seems, apparently knew a little something about swordplay — or at least its vocabulary. His statement that “every forte makes a foible” might be translated as “every strength makes a weakness,” a very counterintuitive and Thoreau-like thing to say, but speaking purely literally, it’s true: a blade simply cannot have a forte without a foible.

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