If there is one universal word in martial arts, it has to be “oss.” People who practice Japanese martial arts and BJJ should be very familiar with the brief term. But what does it mean?
“Oss” is a word that can refer to various things in martial arts, depending on the location, martial art, or even dojo. It is used mainly as a greeting, acknowledgment, and show of respect, among other meanings.
As much as “oss” is a versatile expression, it is also often misunderstood and misused, so it’s time to clear up those misconceptions once and for all.
What Does “OSS” Mean in Martial Arts
In martial arts, “oss” is used mainly to say hi, hello, yes, thank you, and I understand. It’s a sign of respect used towards the instructor or a training partner before and after a drill is finished.
It’s commonly used to say “I understand” when given instructions by someone, even if he is not higher in the hierarchy (usually a higher-ranked belt). “Oss” is also often used when entering and exiting the dojo and can be accompanied by a bow.
These are the main uses of “oss,” but in different places, you may find even more meanings of the word. Some schools go a step further and use it literally in every sentence. The meaning will vary from martial art to martial art, from country to country, and even from dojo to dojo.
Even if you are well acquainted with the meaning and use of the term, it’s best first to observe the etiquette. If you are at a new dojo, adjust to the local customs to avoid awkward moments.
The word “oss” is widely used in martial arts, predominantly traditional ones like karate and BJJ (which also have a Japanese origin). Still, you can also hear it in many modern combat sports academies.
Especially among MMA fighters with traditional backgrounds, “oss” is frequently used to show respect toward the opponent or when entering the cage.
“Oss” is also widespread in Dutch kickboxing. This style has been heavily influenced by Kyokushin karate, and the two were inseparable in their early history.
The Correct Pronunciation of “OSS”
“oss” is not very hard to pronounce, but there are wrong and right ways of doing it. Depending on where you are, you can hear it pronounced as “oss” (oh-ssss) or as Osu (oh-suu). The first pronunciation is considered correct, but the latter is also widely spread.
For example, “oosh” or “oos” are incorrect pronunciations.
Where Does “OSS” Come From?
What is certain is that the term “oss” originated in Japan, although martial artists in Japan use it far less frequently than their counterparts in the West.
Funnily enough, even the Japanese don’t entirely agree on where the expression “oss” comes from. There are several theories about the origin of the word, and I will share the three most popular ones with you.
A very widely accepted theory is that the term comes from Kyokushin karate. This full-contact style of karate is infamous for its toughness and focus on physical strength and endurance. According to Kyokushin practitioners, “oss” is an abbreviated way of saying “osu no Seishin.”
Here, osu (spelled Osu, not “oss”) is a combination of the two traditional Japanese characters (called kanji), “osu” and “shinobu,” which mean “to push” and “to endure.” The combination of the words can mean a lot of things.
Still, they are always along the lines of overcoming all obstacles and enduring all hardships. Given the hard nature of Kyokushin karate, this explanation is very fitting.
As a person with years of experience in Kyokushin, I can say that “osu” is truly the universal word in this style of karate and that its use in many situations is mandatory. Especially when greeting a senior-ranked belt or receiving instruction, the only acceptable answer is “Osu.”
However, this is far from the only widely accepted theory regarding the origin of the universal martial arts term.
A language expert and linguistics professor at the University of Nagoya named Dr. Mizutani Osamu has the theory that “OSS” is a much briefer way to greet someone good morning than the full polite version in Japanese, “Ohaya gozaimasu.”
In his test, the abbreviation was used by people engaged in athletic endeavors like running. So it sounds reasonable that martial artists also adopted the expression as a quick and easy way to respond to something.
A similar and perhaps the true theory of the origin of “OSS” is that it’s a shortened way of saying “Onegaishimasu.” Despite being a prevalent Japanese saying, it is difficult to translate correctly.
It is used to induce mutual respect and gratitude and is a common way to say something between “please” and “thanks.” Onegaishimasu is used at the beginning and end of training, but students often shorten it until it becomes simply “OSS.”
There will always be debate about the exact origin of the ultimate utility word in martial arts, but what is more important is why it is used.
When to Use It And When To Avoid “OSS”
Today, “oss” is so common in some karate schools that we could argue it is overused. Again, it’s usually best to observe other students and instructors in the academy where you find yourself and adjust your behavior accordingly.
Karate schools are typically rigid in their etiquette, and “oss” may be mandatory. The discipline resembles that of the military, and the beginning and end of training sessions always follow a strict ritual in which “oss” is used among other Japanese words and phrases.
BJJ academies are almost always a lot more laid back in this regard, and while “oss” is widely used and a good sign of respect, you can go without saying it. But if you want to, here are some suitable ways of using “oss.”
- When entering the dojo
- When exiting a dojo
- As a way to say hello to an instructor or fellow practitioner
- After you receive instructions from an instructor or senior practitioner
- At the beginning and the end of a drill
- At the beginning and end of sparring, think of it as a substitution for the touch of gloves.
Despite the incredibly universal usage of “oss,” there are times you should avoid it, and the place to do that may surprise you. Even though the word comes from Japan, you should avoid using it in front of Japanese people, especially those older or more senior in rank than you.
Japanese culture is very strict about manners and language, and using inappropriate words or behaviors may lead to unpleasant misunderstandings.
“oss” is perceived as a masculine and assertive word and is not taken kindly by Japanese people. You can use it if they are younger and of lower rank. Again, this may vary from dojo to dojo, but outside of training situations, it’s best to avoid “oss” entirely.
The word “oss” is the most versatile in all martial arts. “oss “‘s utility is unparalleled. It can be used for greetings, acknowledgment, respect, and, in some cases, literally anything. Still, it’s best to learn what it means and how to use it by observing senior instructors and students.