You wouldn’t think it to look at me, but I have a genuine varsity letter. I lettered in fencing, although in actual fact I earned the letter more for being a good armourer than for being a mediocre fencer. But I really did enjoy fencing, except for the part about being unable to walk for several days after practice began each fall, when I rediscovered a lot of obscure muscles. And I loved the vocabulary, which is mostly archaic French.
So what is a foible? Well, it’s the opposite of a forte. If the little voice in your head pronounced that last word “fortay”, you’ve got the wrong metaphor. “Forte” comes from fencing, not music. It’s not something you do loudly and in Italian (forte pronounced “fortay”), it’s something you do strongly and in French (forte pronounced “fort”).
The forte of your blade is the thickest part, near the hilt. The foible is the thin part nearest the tip. If you put “foible” through its Grimm’s Law paces, it turns into the modern French word faible, which means “weak”. You always try to catch your opponent’s foible with your forte, which puts the leverage on your side and gives you a chance to get your opponent’s blade out of the way while you go in and, well, run your opponent through.
Oh, all right. You’re not really running anyone through. You’re hitting your opponent with the tip of your weapon somewhere on the upper body exclusive of the head and arms (foil) or anywhere at all (épée) or with the tip or side of your weapon anywhere above the waist (sabre). But here’s the thing: the rules and techniques of fencing were developed in the days when you would have been using a real weapon, when you would have been trying to maim or kill your opponent. Fencing is a profoundly civilized and courteous representation of lethal violence.
There is something here about the way we argue, I think. You can carry a battle-axe into every fight. It won’t leave you with many people who are willing to take you on again. Or you can give up the urge to annihilate everyone who disagrees with you. You can learn to use not just your forte but also your foible. Because one thing that is as true off the fencing strip as on it is that a weapon without a foible is incomplete. It is broken. We may try to present ourselves as all forte, but it is our foibles that make us complete. You might go so far as to say that courtesy, even civilization itself, depends on the interplay between forte and foible.