The Language Attic: Glaive

Webster'sAs I’ve mentioned before, my sweetheart’s daughter comes over periodically to consult our very large (and rather old) unabridged Merriam-Webster dictionary. She keeps a word list and, judging by the words on it, she’s been reading a lot of older works.

The other day one of her works was glaive. It sounded familiar to me, and when she read out the definition in Webster’s, I said, “Aha. I was right. A glaive is a naginata.”

Which settled the question for me, but probably not for those unfamiliar with traditional Japanese weapons.

A naginata, or glaive in both English and French, is a weapon about the length of a spear that has a single-sided blade on the end instead of just a sharp point. That is, you can cut with it, not just stab as you do with a spear.

Glaive appears to be an obsolete term, more common in history and old-fashioned stories, though apparently the word is used poetically for sword. The only references I can find to modern training with it appear to be related to the Society for Creative Anachronism.




Naginata, on the other hand, is not obsolete at all as either a word or a weapon. It may not be used in war these days, but people study the martial art of naginata in modern times. Naginata training is common in Japan, but also exists in other countries.




Here’s one of the cool facts about naginata: most of the grand masters today are women, as are most of the students. That’s in part because the naginata was considered an appropriate weapon for a samurai woman, particularly if she found it necessary to defend her home in the absence of her menfolk.

In Japan, girls study the art of naginata in school. I once met some masters from Japan who were visiting Washington, DC, for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. They were women in their 60s and 70s.

I cannot find any reference to western women using a glaive, more’s the pity.

I personally love a good sword, but there is a real advantage to a naginata (or a glaive): Reach. You don’t have to get close to someone to cut them. I always liked the six-foot staff (bo in Japanese) for a similar reason. It’s nice to be able to hit someone from a distance.

But a staff with a blade. Can’t get much cooler than that.



The Language Attic: Glaive — 6 Comments

  1. Presumably your sweetheart’s daughter didn’t encounter the word in Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small quartet, as those books always explain the term the first time it shows up in each book. (In the later books, the term naginata shows up as well. The weapon is associated with that world’s Japan-counterpart.) There are multiple discussions of what it is as well as why it’s a good choice of weapon for a woman, or for anyone trying to hold off a larger opponent. It becomes the protagonist’s primary weapon (when she reaches a point in her training that she can choose her weapons) and when she earns her shield, her device includes a pair of crossed glaives.

    • I think she was reading 18th and 19th century literature — she’s been reading lots of older books of late. Those authors often assume familiarity with words we now find obsolete.

      But now I need to read the Tamora Pierce. I love it that she explains the weapon and why it is good for many women.

  2. I didn’t know that (women’s weapon) about the naginata. That is cool.

  3. Interesting! I have no familiarity with weapons, and had concluded from where I encountered it that it was some kind of old-time/medieval weapon, maybe some sort of sword. This gives a much clearer picture.