Etymology of ‘Martial Art’

THE FAR EAST TRANSLATION

The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘martial art’ as:

Various sports, which originated chiefly in Japan, Korea, and China as forms of self-defence or attack, such as judo, karate, and kendo.

Dictionary.com defines it as:

any of the traditional forms of Oriental self-defence or combat that utilize physical skill and coordination without weapons, as karate, aikido, judo, or kung fu, often practiced as sport.

So it’s no surprise that people strongly relate martial arts with Oriental and Eastern Traditions, and rule out combat sports like boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling. Furthermore, the colloquial of ‘martial’ plus ‘art’ as single term was first coined as a translation for the Japanese word ‘bujutsu’ in 1909 according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, and in 1933 according to Wiktionary.

ANCIENT GREEK TO ANCIENT ROME

Also mentioned in Wiktionary, the term was already used as early as 1715 in Alexander Pope’s English translation of Homer’s Iliad, as well as the less famous translation by William Sotheby 1831. Online Etymology Dictionary also states that term ‘martial’ go as far back as the 14th century. The use ‘martial law’ to mean military rule over civilians was first recorded in 1530s. ‘Martial’ was derived from the ancient Roman god of war, Mars, of which our neighbouring planet is named after. Hence ‘martial’ means to be like Mars, or to be warlike.

Understanding Iliad as a literary work on the ancient Greek mythology of the Trojan War, in fact the most notable, and understanding the usage of the term ‘martial’ in the 1500s, we can establish that the usage of ‘martial art’ before 1900s referred to the classical Western military training, action or skill rather than a Far Eastern athletic art-form or discipline.

MODERN DEFINITION

As civilisations settled into peace, the practice of close quarters military systems for actual use became obsolete. Those which are still in practice became an art-form, a discipline and eventually a way of life. The history of Japan and the samurai serves as a perfect example of this and seemed to have laid the foundations of many modern martial arts – perhaps for another discussion.

In our current generation, with the popularity of MMA and martial arts documentaries, it seems very evident that this term is becoming a blanket term encompassing not only Eastern traditional disciplines but also western combat sports and even military close quarters combat systems such as Krav Maga and Marine Corps.

Wiktionary sums it all up very well by giving the different usages of the term:

  1. Commonly, any of several fighting styles which contain systematized methods of training for combat, both armed and unarmed; often practiced as a sport, e.g. boxing, karate, judo, silat, wrestling, or Muay Thai.
  2. military skills, proficiency in military strategy, prowess in warfare

1832… of all the modes by which the advantage of his country may be secured, the martial arts and valour are those by which a Swiss the most hopes to promote it. (Richard Chenevix, An Essay Upon National Character: 4. On patriotism, p. 481).

  1. (slang) by restriction, martial arts originating from East Asia and Southeast Asia; often practiced as a meditative medium, e.g. aikido, judo, kyudo

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