- The soldiers positioned at the very front of an army.
- The leaders of a movement or trend.
A vanguard is a person who dares to be right on the cutting edge. Innovation, exploration, and discovery define a vanguard's mission, and the qualities that set them apart from the rest. Typically, vanguard is used to characterize leaders of artistic trends and scientific advancements, but every movement, campaign, or action has such intrepid explorers. From Miles Davis, who transformed jazz from its pop roots into a worldwide art phenomenon, to the inventors of the transistor, John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley, who made modern computers possible, the hard work of vanguards across disciplines to push the envelope is what brings us new and exciting possibilities.
The word vanguard is actually adapted from the French term avant-garde, and both terms originated from the organization of military units in Medieval Europe. Back then, an army's forward contingent, the van, would be led by a specially trained guard of scout soldiers, who were accompanied by a small corp of craftsmen and civilian leaders. Today, the word vanguard retains the spirit of these bold warriors to represent only the most undaunted leaders of the pack.
Example: Said to have predated Columbus in voyaging to the Americas by many hundreds of years, Leif Erikson was an unsung vanguard of seafaring exploration.
Example: Vanguards in the field of computer science are researching how to apply quantum principles to existing processor technology to create the world's first viable quantum computer.
The word vanguard, in its original military usage, dates back to the mid-1400s, first entering English as vaunt garde. This term, in turn, comes from the French word avant-garde, with avant meaning "in front" and garde as the cognate of "guard." In Medieval times, armies were divided into three distinct segments: a "van" in the lead, a main body in the middle, and a rear unit to defend against flanking attacks. The elite guard of the van (or, you guessed it, the vanguard) was composed of the most highly trained soldiers, and were often sent on specialized missions like taking up a forward position or scouting out the enemy.
Avant-garde: This term is not only the origin of vanguard, but it has also entered the English lexicon to express the same sense of boldness and leadership. Usually, though, it is used more specifically in artistic circles or settings.
From G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy:
The comfortable class must be merely our vanguard in Utopia...Is there any answer to the proposition that those who have had the best opportunities will probably be our best guides?
In this passage, Chesterton is contending that the best leaders, or vanguard, of a better society would naturally be those who already occupy a peaceful and prosperous place in it. If a group is most of the way toward something, he reasons, it makes sense for them to be the ones to lead the rest there.
- The front bumper on your minivan is a vanguard.
- The vanguard is what can guard everything that's behind it.
Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of vanguard. Did you use vanguard in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.