Jargon Watch: The Language Of Fencing

En garde, prêts, allez!
two fencers mid strike fencing terms

For a relatively niche sport that not very many people know much about, there’s an unexpectedly extensive vocabulary associated with fencing. If you’ve ever tried to follow along and found yourself wishing you had a glossary of fencing terms just to help you keep up, you’re not alone, and that’s also why this article exists.

Fencing itself has a long and storied history that goes back to at least 1200 BCE — a carving from that time period portrays some sort of sport involving masks and weapons with tips. Swordsmanship was practiced by the Greeks and Romans, and modern fencing took root during the 15th century in Spain, where the first two fencing manuals were written. Eventually, the Italians took it up, and then the French.

It was the French Fencing Academy in the 16th century that began to develop the nomenclature for various fencing terms we most often use today. Coincidentally, many fencing terms are actually French words, or they derive from French.

Of course, you could start with the most basic fencing term, which is “fencing.” You might be wondering why it’s called that, or where fences come into the picture. The term “fencing” actually comes from the Latin defendere, which means “to ward off, protect or defend” and eventually became the word “defense” in English.

Here’s what the rest of those words mean.

A Surprisingly Long List Of Fencing Terms

Advance — To step forward during a bout.

Allez — This is the final command that signals fencers to begin competing (the sequence goes: en garde, prêts, allez). Allez means “go” in French.

Attack — The term used to describe a movement or sequence by a fencer attempting to score a point.

Balestra — A short jump toward the opponent, often followed by a lunge. The word balestra derives from a Latin term meaning “crossbow.”

Beat — When a fencer taps their opponent’s blade to initiate an attack.

Bout — The term used to describe a contest between two fencers, assuming the score is being kept. When the score is not kept, it’s called an assault.

Compound — An attack made up of several moves.

Corps-à-corps — An illegal move in foil and sabre fencing that involves bodily contact between two fencers. Literally “body-to-body” in French.

Counter-parry — A defense move where a fencer goes around the opponent’s blade with a circular movement.

Counter-riposte — Offense move made by a fencer after parrying (blocking) a riposte (counterattack). So, essentially, it’s a counterattack to a counterattack.

Disengagement — When the two blades break contact because one of the fencers passed their blade beneath their opponent’s.

Engagement — Contact between the blades.

En garde — The first in a sequence of commands that signals the start of a bout. En garde is French for “on guard” and describes the position fencers take before a bout.

Epee — A type of weapon used in fencing. An epee has a triangular blade and large hand guard.

Feint — A false attack (kind of like a fake-out) that is meant to get the opponent to move in a way that would make them vulnerable for a real attack. Feint means “feigned” (or “pretended”) in French.

Fleche — A short running attack in foil and epee fencing (it’s illegal in sabre). The word flèche means “arrow” in French.

Foil — Another type of weapon used in fencing that features a rectangular blade.

Flunge — A combined lunge and fleche, used only in sabre fencing.

Match — The sum total of all bouts between fencers on different teams.

Parry — A defense move that involves blocking the opponent’s blade. There are eight different types of these with their own numerical names: prime, seconde, tierce, quarte, quinte, sixte, septime and octave.

Piste — The actual field that the fencers play on, also referred to as the “strip.” It’s made of metallic mesh. Piste means “track” in French.

Plastron — The protective clothing fencers wear underneath their jackets.

Prêts — The second in a sequence of commands that signals the start of the bout, meaning “ready” in French. Can also be prêtes when both fencers are female.

Recover — When a player returns to the en garde position after an attack. Also called a reprise.

Redoublement — A second attack made against an opponent after an opponent parries without a riposte (counterattack). Redoublement means “repetition” in French.

Riposte — A counterattack made by a fencer after parrying an opponent’s attack. Riposte means “retaliation” in French.

Sabre — A type of weapon used in fencing that is V-shaped. The sabre is the fastest type of fencing weapon.

Simple — The opposite of a compound, a simple refers to an attack or riposte consisting of a single move.

Simultaneous — When two fencers hit each other at the same time in foil and sabre, which results in no points awarded to either side.

Stop-thrust — A sudden counterattack made as an opponent begins an attack.

Thrust — A full extension of the blade without foot movement.

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