200809 What Is In A Word?

The other day on video I saw a fencer execute a Spike of the Cactus against a same handed opponent and then a Miyake against an opposite handed opponent. Both of them were prepared with Vezzali Steps. If we are to be successful as competitors, it is vital that each of you practice these techniques, so let’s plan to do at least 50 of each in solo training this week.

You understood that correctly, yes? I did not make any of that assignment up. The terms are from THIS IS FENCING by Ziemowit Wojciechowski, a highly successful Fencing Master and original thinker. In each case the name describes a unique approach to solving a tactical problem in modern fencing.

New techniques may well demand new terminology. But there is a risk. If you don’t know who Valentina Vezzali is and have never watched her fence, a Vezzali Step makes no sense. The same applies to Miyake. In 30 years who will remember who these individuals were? And thus there is a very good chance their techniques will similarly disappear.

Words form the names of things and the cultural inventory of a people. As someone who taught winter survival, I had a two word vocabulary for snow: “snow” and “avalanche-potential-snow.” One described the white stuff coming down, and the other the snow on the ground in specific types of layers at specific temperatures and angles of slope. I was a snow novice with one specific problem – the Inuit, an Alaskan indigenous people, have a dozen or more words that describe snow in the complete context of their civilization.

It is no different for fencers. We have a distinct language with its own terminology that is critical to communicating with other fencers, trainers, and referees, understanding, visualizing, and executing the tactics and technique of the sport. If you know the language you can communicate. If you do not, you can neither communicate nor understand others.

This has real consequences for your development as a fencer. For 54 years I thought I knew how to execute a glide (a prise de fer with lateral opposition to the opponent’s blade). I seized control of the foible with my forte and slid down the grades to hit, maintaining forte opposition.

Two years ago I started to understand the very significant number of variations of attacks with continuous lateral opposition: grazes, glissades, coules, glides, etc.

Four weeks ago as I worked on my translation of Edoardo Mangiarotti and Aldo Cerchiari’s LA VERA SCHERMA, I suddenly understood that I had not been doing a glide, but a very different technique, the Pressa di Ferro, with a very different technical execution and tactical application from the glide.

The opportunities for confusion are many with various ranges of importance. They may result from simple differences in the precision with how words are used. For example: your opponent does a counter parry. Did they just do:

(1) a circular parry or change parry, or

(2) a parry that sets-up a counter-riposte?

As an exercise in terminology on paper, who cares? But in the one minute, when you are down 12-14 in the direct elimination, and your strip coach tells you “watch out for his counterparry,” should you:

(a) vary your ripostes so that the opponent will have a harder time parrying your riposte and making a counterriposte, or

(b) execute a feint straight thrust-counterdisengage or double attack?

If you use correct, standard terminology and your trainer does the same, you are now at 13-14. If there is a mismatch, you just lost.

Sometimes the confusion is deliberate. There is no better example of this than the three terms for a renewal of the attack: remise, redouble, and reprise. Remise is clearly defined in the Rules of Fencing as a replacement in the original line. Reprise is clearly defined as requiring a recovery to guard, conceptually either forward or backwards, the only one of the three in which movement from the lunge is mentioned. And then there is Redouble:

“A new action, either simple or compound, made against an opponent who has parried without riposting or who has merely avoided the first action by retreating or displacing the target.”

The part about “parried without riposting …” is identical to the wording of the remise definition. There is no mention of a movement to guard or other footwork. Traditional definitions have generally described this as a renewal with a beat or change in line (see http://classicalacademy.blogspot.com/2020/02/13-renewals.html).

As a result when someone says redouble you cannot be sure of what they mean according to the rules, and the traditional distinctions are easily overlooked by someone who does not understand the history of the term.

Sometimes the rules themselves create impossibilities. Until very recently the tac-au-tac or beat parry was a staple of fencing. Now the rules define a beat as occurring as an attack in the first two thirds of the blade and the parry as blade contact in the last one third, the strong. So if you execute a beat and hit the attacker with your riposte, the entire action becomes a counterattack into their attack, rather than what it is, a parry and riposte.

And occasionally, the rules accidentally prove a point. Countertime is a second intention action to draw a stop-hit on a slowly developing attack, and then meet it with a response. According to some there is only one type of countertime, countertime done with a parry to defeat the stop hit. But that is not so. There are three countertimes:

(1) Defensive countertime – the stop hit is met by a parry and riposte. This is supposedly the only way countertime can be executed, and it is called countertime to the exclusion of the other options..

(2) Offensive countertime – the stop hit is taken with the blade or is defeated with a beat attack.

(3) Counteroffensive countertime – the stop hit is met with a stop hit (hint – it looks like one simple attack by the original attacker).

If you attempt to defeat the stop hit with a parry but you hit with the mid-point of your blade, you have just executed a beat under the rules – no more is it a defensive countertime; it has to be offensive.

And thus truth is revealed.

It is a common fault for students to say I don’t care about what it is called, I just don’t want to do it. But, and this is a huge but, if you don’t care what it is called, how do I ever tell you how to put it together with other things you do not know the name for … in lessons … on the strip … in review. How do you ever read anything about fencing and understand it? How do you understand the referee? Every action beyond a simple extension of the arm requires multiple parts. When you name those parts it aids your brain in understanding and being able to execute under the pressure of the bout.

So bottom line – the terminology of fencing matters, just like the words of a language matter. Be fluent in fencing, even if you are not in your native language.

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