The Explanation: To the uninitiated, fencing can be a bit baffling. For instance, in modern fencing, the touches are registered electronically but there's still a referee (also called a president) who can call hits that didn't register electronically or overrule ones that did. But all that's beside the point. To begin with, fencing can be broken down into three major categories.

The first is foil, the lightest and most flexible of the fencing weapons. In foil, the only valid target is the opponent's trunk (roughly from the top of the collar to the crotch in front, and to the top of the hipbones in the back). The arms, legs, and head are no good, and only hits with the foil's tip are counted. Basically, foil fencing is a modernized form of what was, traditionally, sword-fighting practice—like, if someone made a sport out of hitting tackling blocks.

If you are really dueling with a seriously sharp rapier, any touch anywhere on the body would smart. And that's the origin of the épée, a heavier, more rigid version of the foil, with a triangular blade and a larger, "bowl-shaped" blade guard (to protect the hand). In épée, a person's whole body is fair game, including the head. Like foil, épée touches must be made with only the tip, and both disciplines require the fencers to stop after each touch is made, whether on a valid target area or not.

The last discipline is saber, an incredibly fast-paced whack fest that's a hand-me-down from the days of cavalrymen slashing away on horseback. The fencing saber is heavier and has a large, curved hand guard. The target area is anything from the waist up (the parts you'd be swinging at if you and your opponents were both on horses). But two big differences make saber the most frenetic of the disciplines. First, the edge of the saber can be used as well as the point, so slashes are valid hits; and second, the bout does not stop after an off-target hit, so the opponents will whack and slash at each other until a legal hit is registered, making it a hoot to watch.

Vocab Lesson
Like ballet, fencing is of (mostly) French origin and uses a list of French words longer than the average baguette. For instance, the strip on which the bouts take place is the piste. An attack that strongly grazes the opponent's blade is a froissement. One that starts before a stoppage in play but lands after is called a coup lancé. And a leaping, running attack is called a flèche.

This post was excerpted from the mental_floss book What's the Difference?