Ward (meaning)

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The four letters ward can cause difficulty. There is a complex of meanings in the basic verb 'to ward [e.g. off] and its related noun 'a ward'; there is also a contraction of award, as both noun and verb, although this is rare in current English. The basic idea is that of the cognate guard (you may also like to see Gu- for an indication of the etymological link between ward and guard). (You may also like to see AWE's article on the suffix '-ward'.)

  • As a verb, 'to ward' means 'to protect', originally 'to stand over', 'to defend', 'to watch over'. A wardrobe is a place, usually now a cupboard, but formerly often a room, in which to keep 'robes', or clothes.
      • This had various special applications in historical contexts, for which see OED, s.v. ward, v.1.
    • Now it is most often used with off, to mean 'to block [a blow]', 'to parry [e.g. a sword thrust, or a boxer's punch]'
      • Historically, 'to ward off' could also mean 'to erect a defensive wall around [a town, etc]', as 'to ward in' might be said of the same action as seen by the inhabitants. An adult might be said 'to ward a child', as a king might 'ward his people' or an aristocrat might 'ward an estate' in the general sense of 'look after their interests'.
  • As a noun, a ward' had a number of meanings, all developed more or less loosely from the idea of protection. There are also nouns reflecting the verbal meanings: 'a ward', in archaic discussion of fencing with swords, is 'a parry'.
    • Originally, a ward was a watchman, protector or guard. This meaning is now obsolete, except in historic combinations like hayward (an officer appointed by parishes, etc, to supervise field boundaries, crops and so on), and partially fossilized in such occupational surnames as Woodward, the title of an officer of the forests. (Oddly, it forms half of the etymological root of 'lord', first recorded as hláfweard, 'loaf ward' - the guardian of the bread was the head of the family, residence or castle. Only later was it influenced by dominus, the Latin word it was used to translate, to convey the idea of 'control', 'dominance', 'overlordship' etc.)
    • From this, the word developed into the abstract noun meaning 'the function or job of a watchman, defender or protector'. This, too, is now largely obsolete, but in older literature, you may find soldiers 'keeping ward'. This had several specific meanings, including:
      • the guardianship of a minor with no living parents (who is now called, in a commoner use of this meaning, 'a ward') or other non-competent person;
        • (in feudal times, wards who were heirs sometimes to vast estates were highly valued: the wardship of a wealthy man's orphan was a highly prized reward in a king's gift)
      • the control or care of a prisoner (the usual current phrase is 'in charge of').
    • Ward then became applied to the people 'in ward', or under the protection or control of someone else, nowadays almost always a young person (a minor) who is in the care of people officially replacing the child's parents, most commonly because they are dead.
      • A ward of court is a minor under the charge of a court of law, or a person appointed by such a court or by parents with the authority of the court. (Until 1873, this was a ward in Chancery, such as the central characters in Charles Dickens's novel Bleak House.
  • Medieval armies were arranged for action into three main divisions known as wards, each under the command of individual leaders.
    • The foremost division was the vanward or more commonly vaward (pronounced 'VAH-word', 'VOH-word' or 'VAY-word' [the IPA vowel is [[/ɑː/, /əʊ/ or /eɪ/ - there is little evidence of how it was pronounced when it was current), and, from Early Modern English, the vanguard - shortened from the mid-seventeenth century to van (the root is the French avant, 'in front [of]', and an early form was vauntward. In Shakespeare's Henry V, the Duke of York asks, as a mark of honour:
My lord, most humbly on my knee I beg
The leading of the vaward.;
    • The division at the back of the army was the arrearward or rearward (and, very rarely, 'a backward'), now usually rearguard;
    • in the centre was the main ward, or main battle.
  • A ward also came to mean 'a place to be guarded', for example
    • the space between two encircling defensible walls, such as the inner and outer wards of a medieval castle;
    • applied in [MIddle English]] to one of the separate rooms or compartments of a prison, as in Shakespeare's Hamlet, where the Prince says that Denmark's "a prison ... in which there are many Confines, Wards, and Dungeons" (II ii 249);
    • later (from the eighteenth century) transferred to one of the rooms of a hospital, often distinguished by grouping patients according to their condition or complaint, such as geriatric, maternity or fever wards;
    • from early times, it was applied to an administrative unit, originally one whose inhabitants elected an alderman, and later, the smallest division for official public elections, voting for between one and thee Councillors in local elections, and forming a sub-unit of a parliamentary constituency.
  • A ward can also be applied to a substitute for a human guard, or other means of defence:
    • The part of a sword-hilt that guards the hand;
    • a defensive stroke of the sword against the thrust or slash of an opponent;
    • the part of a lock that prevents it being opened except by a specific key
      • and the corresponding hollow parts of the key that allow it to enter the lock. (People other than locksmiths often apply 'ward' to the solid parts of the key and the corresponding cavities in the lock; but technicians should distinguish between the two.)