A lot of things come to mind when you hear the term swashbuckler. The flash of steel, the clash of parries, and the witty banter of heroes (or villains) whose skill is so great that even a duel to the death isn't enough to greatly concern them. You probably think of musketeers and pirate captains, all taking on long odds and coming out ahead with nothing more than guts and style.
I hate to tell you this, but if that's what you were thinking then you only know Hollywood's definition of what a swashbuckler is.
The Real Image of a Swashbuckler
The term first came into common use around the 1550s, and it was most definitely not a word you used to give someone a compliment on their skill. It was a combination of the word swash (which refers to a banging noise) and buckler (a commonly used small shield held in one hand or occasionally strapped to the arm). When combined the terms referred not to someone who was a skilled swordsman, but rather to someone who banged his sword on his shield to make a lot of noise and to frighten an opponent.
Now that we've covered the basics there are several ways the term was actually used, all of which may be equally valid. Swashbucklers tended to be loud, abrasive, and boastful of their skill and deadliness with a blade. The combination of the two words swash and buckler could refer to the act of banging on one's own buckler as a distraction tactic, or it could refer to the idea that a swashbuckler would loudly bang his blows onto his opponent's shield. In this way a swordsman might make up in strength what he lacked in skill. In either case a swashbuckler was a braggart, a dirty fighter, and more often than not a bully who used brute force rather than any real mastery of fencing or sword play to win his fights.
What Made It Change?
In a word, Hollywood.
Fencing and swordplay has always been a favorite playground for creators of fiction, from the tales of the Three Musketeers to the tales of Captain Blood. When these classic stories wound up on the silver screen the term swashbuckler was applied to them. Whether it was to refer to the arrogance of the heroes (something Errol Flynn cemented into the image of the swashbuckling hero), or simply because it was an easily-remembered buzzword is hard to say. Since duels of skill between the hero and the villain were always popular though it's likely that the connection between swashbucklers and skilled swordsmen was made during these dramatic fight scenes.
Ironic, given that it's quite literally the opposite of what the term originally meant.
What Other Words Have Secret Meanings?
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