In martial arts, we have to deal with a lot of foreign languages. As such, there is a lot of confusion about what foreign terms actually mean. There is a common problem which I like to call “Zweihander syndrome.” Zweihander syndrome is a phenomenon where people take a generic word from a foreign language and turn it into a specific term.

The modern idea of a zweihander is quite specific. But in reality, the term refers to any two-handed sword.

The namesake for this phenomenon is the zweihander, a type of German great sword with a distinctive appearance which was famously used by the Landsknecht. It is known for having a smaller, secondary handguard in front of the ricasso, and for sometimes having a flammard blade. But the word “zweihander” doesn’t mean any of that. It just means “two-hander” in German. When the word zweihander was imported into English, it turned from a generic term into a specific term.

 

This is more common than you might think. Here are a few common examples of Zweihander syndrome:

 

Gong fu(kung fu)

English meaning: “Chinese martial arts”

Mandarin meaning: “Martial art” or a certain skill/achievement

In everyday use, gong fu is a generic term for any martial art, Chinese or otherwise. Technically, gong fu refers to skill, so even a non-martial artists can “have” gong fu if they’re good at what they do.

 

Kenjutsu

English meaning: “Japanese swordsmanship”

Japanese meaning: “Swordsmanship”

Many people mistakenly believe that “kenjutsu” is a specific style of swordsmanship. There are actually countless kenjutsu schools, many of which have almost no relation to one another. The only thing that this word tells us is that the school of swordsmanship is Japanese. This applies to almost any arts whose names end in “-jutsu.”

 

Jian

English meaning: “Chinese straight sword”

Mandarin meaning: “Sword” or “straight sword”

Mandarin is unlike English in that it divides all swords into two categories: “Jian” and “dao.” The latter refers to a curved swords and other blades, and it literally means “knife.” So because both of these are words for sword, a better translation might be “straight sword.”

 

Destreza

English meaning: “Spanish swordsmanship”

Spanish meaning: “Skill” or “art”

A number of masters of the Spanish school of swordsmanship referred to their system as “La Verdadera Destreza,” meaning “The True Art” or “The True Skill.” Nowadays, Western martial artists use the word “Destreza” as shorthand to refer to the Spanish school.


Systema

English meaning: Refers to a specific Russian martial art

Russian meaning: “System”

Just like “Destreza,” this was a purely descriptive term that became specific when it was imported into English.

 

These words can even be imported into multiple languages. For example, the martial art Kenpo/Kempo is a transliteration of the Chinese word quanfa, meaning “fist method” or possibly “fist law.” In Chinese, this is a generic title for martial arts. In Japanese, this means “Chinese martial arts” in general, and in English, it refers to a specific Japanese martial art. Each  time the word was imported into a new language, the name became more specific.

There are examples of zweihander syndrome in nearly every language. The English language imports foreign words all the time. When we use those foreign words, they take on an added level of specificity because we know that they refer to a certain country. So a two-handed sword becomes a German two-handed sword, and swordsmanship becomes Japanese swordsmanship. This may be specific enough For those of us who are unfamiliar with the nuances of martial arts. But understanding names is the first step toward understanding those nuances.

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