The Grammarphobia Blog

On guard

Q: When you guard people in basketball, you defend against them. When you guard people off the court, you protect them. How did this happen?

A: The verb “guard” means one thing in basketball terminology, but quite another off the court.

Away from the hoops, to “guard” someone—a baby, for instance—means to keep the child safe. But to a basketball player, to “guard” an opponent means to keep him from scoring points.

In both cases, the person doing the guarding is in a defensive posture, though the attitude toward the guarded object is protective in one case and hostile in the other.

The word “guard”—as both verb and noun—came into English in the 15th century through French. But its roots aren’t in Latin.

It came into the Romance languages from prehistoric Old Germanic words reconstructed as warda (noun) and wardon (verb), both having to do with watching or guarding. These are from a root, war-, meaning to observe, watch, guard, or take care.

In sports terminology, “guard” is used in a specialized way, as a verb and as a noun. Both basketball and football have defensive players referred to as “guards.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says that in basketball, the “guard” is “either of the two players who are chiefly responsible for the marking of opposing forwards.”

The earliest citation in the OED for the use of the noun “guard” in basketball is from a 1905 rulebook, Official Basket Ball Rules:

“The position of the guard is the most difficult and unsatisfactory place in the team. … He is expected to prevent his opponent from throwing a goal, and that without making a foul himself.”

The use of the verb “guard” in sports isn’t all that new. The OED has published references for the usage dating back to the middle 1700s, but the early examples (from curling, cricket, and chess) use the verb in the sense of protecting.

Here’s an example from Delabere P. Blaine’s Encyclopaedia of Rural Sports (1840): “The object of the next in order is to guard the stone of his partner, or to strike off that of his antagonist.” (The citation refers to curling, a sport in which players slide stones across a sheet of ice toward a target area.)

The OED doesn’t have any citations for the verb “guard” used in basketball, but it has a half-dozen similar, non-sports examples dating from the early 1700s. In this sense, the verb is defined as “to prevent from exceeding bounds; to keep in check, control.”

Here’s an 18th-century example, from Edward Young’s The Complaint: Or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death & Immortality (1742): “Guard well thy Thought; our Thoughts are heard in Heav’n.”

And here’s one from a late 19th-century translation of the Bible (Proverbs 13:3): “He that guardeth his mouth keepeth his life.”

That Old Germanic root we mentioned (war-) has given English a great many useful words besides “guard.” It’s also the prehistoric ancestor of “guardian,” “aware,” “wary,” “ward,” and “warden.”

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