A statement that appears again and again in discussions about swords is that you should put the pointy end in the other guy, or variations on that effect. It is often intended to be humorous rather than to add anything useful to the discussion, but sometimes I see it used to justify some argument or point of view, because, in the end, (supposedly) it all boils down to sticking the pointy end in the other guy.
I don’t think this is a very helpful phrase, either for discussion or for humour. Rather than just being a grumpy old man and talking about kids these days with their weak attempts at being clever on the internet, I’m going to explain why I think it is unhelpful, and then I’m going to pose a request to our community for the curation of the community we would like to have in the future.
It reduces the art
Without any other context beside it, the phrase “put the pointy end in the other guy” reduces the entire art of fencing to just stabbing your opponent. Nothing about defence, nothing about cuts, nothing about footwork or set-up or psychology or preparation or training or knowledge or experience. Just stabbing the other guy.
Because HEMA is still a relatively small activity compared with other sports and martial arts, we all act as ambassadors for our activity. When we talk with people online, when we talk with them in person, we help to shape how they think about and perceive what it is that we do. If, in our pursuit of a very weak joke, we repeat it so often that other people (non-HEMA people) think that we are only trying to stab each other and nothing else, then this is not a good result. The joke backfires on our whole community.
There are other contexts
What about the classical adage, that you should hit without being hit? That’s almost the complete opposite of sticking the point in the other guy: the focus is on remaining safe while being effective, not just stabbing like an idiot.
What about a cutting sword like the basket-hilted broadsword or a very curved sabre? Sure, you can thrust with these, but the systems tend to favour the cut, for very good reason. Where the pointy end goes is of very little importance, yet it just doesn’t sound as pithy to suggest that people should put the third quarter of the sharp front edge in and through the other guy with opposition to his edge.
In the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century, the citizens of the free cities had certain duties, rights, responsibilities, and expectations. They had to be able and willing to fight with swords to be considered useful enough to be worthy of being a citizen. There was the social expectation (and indeed requirement) that after an insult was given, swords had to be drawn, and the fight had to begin. So for these people, the whole point of most of their fights was to show willing until the peace of the city was demanded by fellow citizens, at which point they could de-escalate and get on with their lives, honour intact. Furthermore, although the law was in favour of self-defence with swords, it was typically illegal to use thrusts against a fellow citizen – a far cry from just sticking the pointy end in the other guy.
In some duels, putting the pointy end in the other guy could be good or bad. In his forearm, drawing first blood? Perhaps that was sufficient to end the affair. Stabbing him in the neck so that he died? Oh dear, murder charge, perhaps you would hang. Not such a great result. Being able to put the pointy end exactly where you want, with the right amount of force, without necessarily killing (or even injuring badly) the other person was often a more important skill.
It’s not that funny
Stick the pointy end in the other guy. Ho ho ho.
Really? It’s just not that funny. Do you chuckle while writing it? If so, fair play, at least you find it funny. For the rest of us, reading it for the third or fourth time in the same discussion thread, perhaps for the tenth or eleventh time on social media that day, let alone that week or month or year… It’s just not funny.
Challenge yourself. Be creative. If you want to be funny, then say something that’s actually funny.
What can you say instead?
Probably, the best thing that you could say instead would be something constructive that is relevant to the discussion and that helps other people. Failing that, perhaps a better policy might be silence, and not posting meaningless cliches like stick the pointy end in the other guy.
If you absolutely must post something funny, then post something that is actually funny. Crack a proper joke. Challenge yourself to do something a bit more creative than sticking the guy with the pointy end.
But to return to the previous idea: silence is a really good policy. If most of the bandwidth of HEMA discussions is taken up with pointless cliches and memes and people just trying to be funny (and failing dismally), then what bandwidth is left for serious discussion? Sure, blowing off steam and having a laugh is a valuable part of being in a community, but it doesn’t have to happen in every single discussion thread, especially not where people are asking serious questions and hoping for serious answers.
My request to the community is to allow space for serious questions and serious discussions. Make space for humour too, sure, there’s nothing wrong with that! But if every discussion goes down to the level of memes and cliches, then where does that leave the community now, a year from now, ten years from now?
Maybe curating a little serious discussion from time to time is no bad thing.
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.