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Don't Make These Mistakes: 6 Commonly Misunderstood Martial Arts Terms

There are many terms and expressions in the martial arts community that will leave you perplexed. However, don't worry—this post is here to assist!

In this blog article, we'll delve into some of the martial arts terminology that is most frequently misinterpreted. We have everything you need, from slang to technical words. You'll be able to wow your training partners with your martial arts language after reading this article and steer clear of any uncomfortable misunderstandings.

So whether you're a Black Belt seeking to brush up on your vocabulary or a Green Belt trying to stay up, read on for information on often misinterpreted phrases in the martial arts community.

“Karate” (Japanese) Misunderstood meaning: “Empty Hands” True meaning: “Chinese Hands” (originally) Karate is a martial art that developed on the Island south of Japan, Okinawa. Many Southeast Asian nations, including Siam, Burma, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Korea, have long exchanged with Okinawa. However, the island had a particularly strong link to China, and Chinese culture was highly appreciated by the Okinawan people. The Okinawans referred to their assimilated fighting methods as "Toudi," which means "Chinese Hand" or "Tang [Dynasty] Hand" in the Okinawan language. However, when Okinawan Toudi practitioners attempted to spread the martial art to mainland Japan, they were met with reluctance owing to Japan's struggle with China.

To make Toudi more palatable to the Japanese people, practitioners altered the name of the martial art to "Karate," which means "empty hand" in Japanese. The adjective "do," which means "road" or "way" in Japanese, was also added to the end of the word "Karate," indicating that Karate was now more than just a fighting practice, but also a philosophical journey of enlightenment.

This modification made Karate more widely accepted in Japan, allowing it to grow beyond Okinawa.

“Kung Fu” (Chinese) Misunderstood meaning: “Traditional Chinese Martial Art” True meaning: A skill earned through hard work and time Though it is typically said in reference to Traditional Chinese Martial Arts, the term “Kung Fu” actually doesn’t refer specifically to them.

In fact, there are numerous other terms that could be said to be more accurate. Some of these terms, such as “wushu” have instead become associated with other activities and others have simply fallen out of common use. "Kung fu" more accurately translated means "skill earned through hard work and time." Though it can still describe Traditional Chinese Martial Arts, it can also refer to any skill or hobby that takes devotion, discipline, and a lot of elbow grease to achieve. Whether you're able to fight with finesse or are able to speed run Super Mario, "kung fu" is all about putting in the time and effort required to become an expert.

“Kiai” (Japanese) Misunderstood meaning: A loud yell or scream True meaning: An expression of your focused spirit “Kiai” is a term in Japanese martial arts often used to refer to the short, powerful shout that is made when performing a technique or delivering a strike.

The misunderstanding, however, comes when people hear the yell and believe that is what a kiai is all about.

The shout is usually made with the intention of focusing one's energy and concentration into the technique being performed, and has a number of beneficial effects, such as helping to intimidate an opponent or to enhance the power of the technique being performed.

Though the loud yell is a part of the expression, it is meaningless if the intention isn’t driving the action. It is about the convergence of your energy and focus.

The term "kiai" actually involves the Japanese word "ki," which refers to the inner energy or spirit that is believed to reside within all living beings. The “ai” portion of the word is the same character as seen in the word “Aikido”, also referencing a type of harmony.

“Osu” (Japanese) Misunderstood meaning: “Yes sir!”, “Hello”, “Goodbye”, and so much more. True meaning: A type of “Oorah” shout with a masculine undertone. “Osu", or “Oss” is a common greeting, farewell, and show of respect in many Japanese martial arts schools, particularly in Karate. It likely has roots in the Officers Academy of the Imperial Japanese Navy, but isn't typically used in traditional Karate dojos in Okinawa, the birthplace of Karate. The truth is, it has a bit of a brash, masculine tone to it. Certainly not something you would say to an elder in a respectful setting. There are various theories about its true meaning and origins, including suggestions that it means "to push". In Japan, the word "oss" overall stands for strength, assertiveness, and masculinity.

“Guan” (Chinese) Misunderstood meaning: Martial art school True meaning: Hall The term is often used in conversation with context aligning it with martial arts, but the term itself isn’t used exclusively in this realm.

In Mandarin Chinese, the word "guan" is used to refer to a place where a particular activity or skill is taught or practiced. However, the word has many different meanings and can be used to refer to a variety of different types of establishments, including restaurants, hotels, libraries, schools, clinics, tea shops, art galleries, and smoke shops.

“Sensei” (Japanese) Misunderstood meaning: “Teacher” True meaning: “One who came before” The word "sensei" is a Japanese term meaning "one who came before."

It is used to describe someone who is extremely proficient or knowledgeable in a certain profession or specialty.

Yes, a "sensei" is a highly talented martial arts instructor or master. However, the phrase may also apply to someone who is highly recognized in their industry, whether they are a teacher, doctor, or even a manga creator.

Lasting Thoughts At the end of the day, taking the time to study the terms you use is just as beneficial as studying the tactics you use.

The meaning behind the words can give new meaning to your physical movements and open up ideas that will further your training.

This lil’ guide is just the beginning. Invest in this aspect of your training and watch the progress come in spades.

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