Witness for De Fence

I read a few screensworth of Mansfield Park on my phone, but my mind kept wandering back to the question of whether fence of the “Don’t Fence Me In” and of the en garde variety were etymologically related to each other and to defence. That British spelling seems to suggest a relationship more than the American defense does.

With enough leftover steak for a couple of meals in a box beside me and a wad of C-notes in my purse I was feeling smug as a bling-bedizened rapper. I decided not to worry about the fact that there was no Wi-Fi on the bus. Data usage plan be damned. I went to www.lapl.org and checked the OED Online. The noun fence, I found, was shortened from defence and beginning in the 14th century it meant ‘the action of defending.’  Felon Sow of Rokeby, an anonymous ballad from around 1600, contains the line, “For all the fence that he could make, She gat sword out of hand.” Later it meant ‘fencing, or use of the sword,’ In Selections from the records of the city of Oxford, 1509–83, we find “Dennys, a poore scholler and a teacher of fence.”

And the other kind of fencing? Yep, related. Fence came to mean something that served as a defense or bulwark, and by 1512, ‘an enclosure or barrier along the boundary of a field, park, yard or any place which it is desired to defend from intruders.’

Illustration: Fechtende adelige Studenten um 1590 (aus einem alten Stammbuchblatt), Zeichnung aus dem 16. Jahrhundert, Rechte abgelaufen


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Lexie Kahn: Word Snooper is a blog about words and their origins at WordSnooper.com.
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