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shameless pleading

Fence

And that was after he shot all the fish in his pond.

Dear Word Detective: I am wondering about one of the uses of the word “fence.” As referring to an enclosure or barrier, that’s easy enough since I have one around my yard. It’s also French for sword fighting. No problem there since I watch all those old swashbuckler movies on late-night cable. But how did it come to refer to the sale of stolen goods? My dictionary is of no help. — Wm Watkins.

That’s an interesting question. We don’t actually have a fence around our yard, but we do have about an acre of wild raspberry bushes, a/k/a nature’s razor wire, on one side of us. I let them grow up a few years ago when one of our neighbors developed a major rage problem, shooting at all sorts of inanimate objects (e.g., rocks) for hours on end. I figured the thorns would at least slow him down if he ever went completely postal. He eventually moved away, fortunately. No fence, no matter how good, would have made that loon a good neighbor.

“Fence” is a fascinating word. The first interesting thing about “fence” is that we use it in all sorts of ways, from the wholesome white picket “fence” around Beaver Cleaver’s house to the seedy “fence” who buys stolen iPads, and, as a verb, to mean both “to build a fence” and “to dance around waving swords while wearing a big tea-strainer on your face.”

We also use “fence” in all sorts of phrases and idioms, from “good fences make good neighbors” (popularized, but not coined, by Robert Frost), to “fence sitter” or “on the fence” meaning a person who refuses to take a position in a controversy, to “mend fences,” meaning “to make peace with an opponent.” Yet we also describe a pointed but restrained argument with someone, especially when one party tries to avoid admitting something, as “fencing” ( “For several months … diplomatists fenced among themselves,” 1855).

The second interesting thing about all these uses of “fence” as both a noun and a verb is that they are all the same word, and that word is, oddly enough, not really “fence.” Our modern word “fence” is really just an aphetic, or cropped, form of the word “defense” (or, in the British spelling, “defence”). “Defense” entered English in the early 14th century from the Old French “defense,” which was derived from the Latin “defendere,” meaning “to protect; defend.” (“Defense” actually entered English twice from Old French, the second time as “defens,” but the forms later merged.) The form “fence” developed in the 14th century meaning “the action of defending,” but by the 15th century “fence” was beginning to assume its modern meaning of “barrier” or “enclosure.”

The use of “fence” to mean “use of a sword in combat,” especially in a formal duel, arose in the 17th century, and was actually the earliest use of “fence” as a verb. In “fencing” great emphasis is given to blocking the strikes of the opponent (as opposed to simply wading in and slashing away), and “to fence” is thus derived from the sense of mounting a proper “defense” to the jabs and so forth of the other fighter. The use of “fence” in the “argue” sense is from this highly stylized form of sword fighting, and debaters often use the jargon of fencing (“thrust,” “parry,” etc.) in describing the verbal action.

The use of “fence” as criminal slang to mean a person who buys stolen goods dates back to the 17th century (“Habberfield … was considered the safest fence about town,” 1812). This use also rests on “fence” in the old “means of defense” meaning. A “fence,” by buying “hot” goods from a thief, provides a defense for the criminal by relieving the miscreant of the burden of holding the evidence (and quite possibly being caught with it) until a buyer can be found. Once stolen goods are “fenced,” it becomes much harder to prove theft; thus, in this case, a good fence makes life easier for a very bad neighbor.

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