Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A fence by any other name...

One thing we do when searching for the news for FenceWeek is weed out all the stories about "fencing" that have nothing to do with the kind you install. There are homonyms, fencing with different meanings, and many stories related to those other meanings. And like you, we sometimes get curious... so we started reading.

The word itself comes from Middle English "fens," short for "defens" which, of course, means defense. "Archaic : a means of protection.” We're not sure why Merriam calls this meaning archaic. The kind of fencing you install has a history, discussed elsewhere, that goes back to the beginnings of mankind, where among other uses, it certainly was for defense. In the beginning, however, it was also an important factor in developing agriculture, and the cultural understanding of private property.

In modern times, your kind of fencing is a security barrier to keep people and animals in or out, a definition of property lines, an augmentation of the appearance of a home or other building, a safety device for children, a shield for privacy, a barrier to noise, and so forth.

But "Fence," or "Fencing," is also the name of a rock band, a middleman in the distribution of stolen goods, a sport of swordsmanship in colleges and the Olympic games, an arguing technique (stop fencing with me,) a breed of lizard, a town in Wisconsin...

...and it is word at the heart of a series of expressions from "not taking sides" to "swinging a baseball bat as hard as you can." And it is a key word in proverbs from sources as diverse as China, France, and England among others.

Each of these meanings have colorful stories... including the kind of fence you install.

We were surprised, for example, to discover that the hidden “fence” protecting the Washington Monument is called a “Ha Ha” fence, installed below ground level so that the view of the lawn is not “spoiled.”

We greatly admired the rules of dueling with sabers, where only hits above the belt are counted. Sabers were originally real weapons of war, but mostly fought on horseback, and it was unchivalrous to hurt the horses! Foil and epee dueling allows larger targets. And in the spirit of equality, we admire the Olympics decision to include a women’s division for fencing. The knights would have loved that.

Among criminal fencing, the big news is the internet where stolen items can be sold (with caution) on eBay. Criminal fencing is now much more organized than it used to be. Fences provide lists of things they want, often tell thieves where to get the items, and of course, set the prices. A good laptop computer would get the thief about $350 a few years ago (and the fence, about $1,000 when shipped to South America.)

And we haven’t even mentioned the kind of fencing that used to put scars on the faces of German aristocrats who wanted to prove their manhood, or the fencing with long “swords” by the Japanese Samurai.

Or the analogies:

Sitting on the fence.
Mending fences with your enemies.
Swinging for the fence.

Or the proverbs:

Everyone pushes a falling fence. (Chinese)Don’t fence me in (Cole Porter)The secret to fencing (with swords) is to give, and not to receive. (Moliere)There is no fence around time that has gone. You have memory. (John Locke)

fence (n.) c.1330, shortening of defens (see defense). Spelling alternated between -c- and -s- in M.E. Sense of "enclosure" is first recorded 1512. Fencible (c.1325) means "capable of making a defense." Sense of "dealer in stolen goods" is thieves' slang, first attested c.1700, from notion of such transactions taking place under defense of secrecy. To be figuratively on the fence "uncommitted" is from 1828, from the notion of spectators at a fight.

fence (v.) "fight with swords," 1598, first recorded in "Merry Wives of Windsor"; from the noun in this sense (1533), see fence (n.). Fencing is from 1581.

fence (v) 1. to sell stolen goods. Note: old organized crime term. See also swank. -n 1. a person who purchases stolen goods. Submitted by Michael David, Los Angeles, CA, USA, 12-14-1996. crime (related to) sell stolen (related to)

Searching for FenceWeek’s news can be fun.