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I recently watched the very epic ending of the Shrek 2, and when the cat draws his rapier, he shouts "On guard!" to the castle guardians.

I perfectly understand the meaning from the context, but was unable to find the exact usage situtaion in any of the dictionaries.

Is it the similar to "Defend yourself!", when a person wants an attack not to be by surprise, but a fair battle and gives their opponent a chance to ackwnowledge the attack?

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up vote 46 down vote accepted

You probably couldn't find it because you tried to spell it in English. It's a loan phrase from the French. As TFD explains:

en garde (interj.) Used to warn a fencer to assume the position preparatory to a match.
[French : en, on + garde, guard.]

Interestingly enough, on guard can also be found in dictionaries, but it means something a little different. The very useful OneLook page also lists entries for en garde.

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^vote with a mystery: When I follow your link to onelook.com, it doesn't mention "on guard" anywhere. I tried some "customize" settings with no luck. – humn Mar 6 at 13:26
@hmmn - The first link (can also be found in dictionaries) is the one that links to "on guard" on OneLook. – J.R. Mar 6 at 17:00
@hmmn - OneLook is a good site to get several dictionary links for one word. (This is often useful, because one dictionary seldom tells the "whole picture.") If you're looking for a single site that lists related words, try Wordnik. – J.R. Mar 6 at 23:52

From the British Fencing Dictionary,


fencing positions - see prime, seconde, tierce, quarte, quinte, sixte, septime, octave

For instance, this gentleman from "A New System of Sword Exercise for Infantry" is in the "prime guard".

An infantryman in prime guard

As J. R. mentions, the phrase is borrowed from French, and is occasionally said by fencers before they practice against each other. It means "get in position", with an implied "I'm about to hit you".

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Okay, but you haven't at all discussed how the OP was mistaken that it was "on" rather than "en" or what that means. – curiousdannii Mar 7 at 10:15

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