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In grappling martial arts and combat sports, particularly Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the word "guard" refers to a type of body position on the ground. In a guard position, one person (the one who "has the guard") is lying supine underneath another person (the one who is "in the guard") while the former restrains the latter with their legs. There are several varieties of guards like the "open guard", the "closed guard", and the "rubber guard". "Passing the guard" means for the person in the guard to escape into another position more advantageous to them. See the English Wikipedia article.

"Guard" in this sense seems to be well attested, with the earliest source I can find being a 2001 book called "Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: Theory & Technique". According to other Wikipedias, "guard" also seems to be used in similar senses in German ("Guard"), Spanish and Italian ("guardia"), French ("garde"), and Hebrew ("גארד").

However, the word "guard" in this sense strikes me as strange: "guarding" usually means to protect, but in guard position, the person lying on the ground is not really protecting anything. And I cannot find any reliable source explaining the historical origin of "guard" in this sense.

Are there any reliable sources that explain the etymology of "guard" in its sense as position in ground combat? Is it supposed to be a metaphor or metonym?


Edit: Thanks for the comments. It's true that "guard" in English also can refer to watching over or staying close to someone to control them or prevent them from escaping. Even with this, it's still unclear whether it was from this meaning that this specific grappling position was named. (After all, "staying close to" could apply to any other grappling position, but it was this particular one that "guard" was applied to.)

In particular, because this term seems to be associated closely with Brazilian jiu-jitsu (the earliest extant source I can find using the term was that 2001 book), and Brazil's most common language is Portuguese, I'm wondering if there are any reliable historical sources indicating one of the following:

  1. That "guard" as a grappling position originated from Portuguese "guarda" in the new Brazilian jiu-jitsu community, before being transferred to grappling terminology in English and other languages. Maybe "guarda" is more idiomatic as a grappling position in Portuguese.
  2. That "guard" as a grappling position originated in English before being transferred to other languages.
  3. That "guard" as a grappling position originated from a language that is neither Portuguese nor English, such as Japanese. (I can find no judo term in Japanese whose literal meaning is analogous to "guard". For example, "ne-waza" / 寝技, which apparently means ground fighting, seems to literally mean "sleep" + "technique". Likewise, "do-osae" / 胴押さえ seems to literally mean "body"/"torso" + "holding back".)

I'm hoping for a reliable historical source or attestation that isn't just speculative. But I wouldn't be surprised if the answer is lost to history.

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  • You can also "guard against" something, which prevents something from happening. That's likely to be the sense that leads to this terminology, since it's usually a defensive strategy.
    – Barmar
    Commented Apr 22 at 20:53
  • The Hebrew guard is a straight borrow word. Just saying. Commented Apr 22 at 21:03
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    One of the earliest meanings of "guard" in English is one who keeps watch, and Wikipedia says "In pure grappling combat sports, the guard is considered an advantageous position" but I'm not sure the solution to this will be found in English - if it's taken e.g. from Portuguese or something from the far east then it may just be the case of not being the best translation (martial artists not necessarily being trained in translation). But not an unreasonable question.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 22 at 22:54
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    A very well posed question. We need good questions.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Apr 22 at 22:58
  • Guarding is not only about protecting, but also about defending one's stance. It may be related to en garde used in fencing. This expression means that the fencer should take a defensive stance Collins. You defend yourself by assuming an advantageous position, I guess.
    – fev
    Commented Apr 23 at 13:31

1 Answer 1

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In a guard position, one person (the one who "has the guard") is lying supine underneath another person (the one who is "in the guard") while the former restrains the latter with their legs.

You will see that, by the use of his legs, the person is holding or "keeping" the person on him.

This fits with the verb (and noun) to guard.

Guard (n.) from Old French garder "to keep, maintain, preserve, protect" (see guard (v.)). Abstract or collective sense of "a keeping, a custody" (as in bodyguard) also is from early 15c. Sword-play and fisticuffs sense is from 1590s;

guard (v.) mid-15c., from guard (n.) or from Old French garder "to keep watch over, guard, protect, maintain, preserve" (corresponding to Old North French warder, see gu-), from Frankish wardon, from Proto-Germanic wardon "to guard" (from PIE root *wer- (3) "perceive, watch out for"). Italian guardare, Spanish guardar also are from Germanic. Related: Guarded; guarding.

https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=guard

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  • It's interesting that Old French "garder" could mean "to keep", which is closer to the grappling position. Though it could be applied to any other grappling position too. And there's a good chance that the sense of "guard" as position originated from Portuguese "guarda" rather than English "guard" due to its close association with Brazilian jiu-jitsu. So I'm wondering whether the "keeping" sense exists in Portuguese "guarda" too. Hopefully there's a historical source that also clarifies whether the position name originally came from English or Portuguese. I edited the question to add this. Commented Apr 28 at 0:19
  • @ragged-swinger It is probably from the Japanese, not from some Romance language at all. Go look at my link in my comment below the answer.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 28 at 22:04
  • This does not prove anything. guard in English, Spanish, Portuguese and French are all related.
    – Lambie
    Commented Apr 29 at 16:46

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