Deconstructing Taekwon-Do

Why Do We Say “Taekwon” When We Bow?

Korean characters for "taekwon"

You ever have one of those nagging questions that you can never find an answer to? Maybe it’s not even an important question, but the fact that you can’t find an answer drives you nuts? I’ve had one of those since I started my taekwon-do career.

Why do we say “taekwon” when we bow?

It’s never made a lick of sense to me.

It’s easy to forget that the word “taekwon-do” has meaning in Korean, that it’s not simply the name of our martial art. But when we translate it, we realize that we’re bowing to another human being while essentially saying “foot fist.” Seems kind of silly, no?

This sort of thing doesn’t happen in other activities. I doubt you’ll ever see two people with racquets in hand walk onto a court, salute one another and say “badminton!” Nor will you see dancers shout “ballet!” to one another as they curtsey.

Are there martial arts equivalents?

The practice even seems to be unique among martial arts. Practitioners of other styles don’t say anything like it.

Some tang soo do clubs will say the Korean term for “thank you” when bowing to their instructors at the beginning of class. While that feels overly ritualistic to me, it’s much less ridiculous than saying “foot fist”.

Many practitioners of karate, judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu—especially people outside of Japan—often say “osu!” (pronounced like “oss”) when bowing, acknowledging a command, or for lots of other reasons. “Osu” is a term that means everything and nothing at the same time. It connotes a general sense of acknowledgement but doesn’t mean anything specific. It kind of means whatever you want it to mean in the moment.

In Japan, it’s also pretty darn rude.

Osu” is an aggressively masculine word in Japan. It’s a word that would likely be reserved for young men in a group of their peers. In other words, it could have been just the kind of term the taekwon-do pioneers would use as they were learning karate.

In Japan, karate students will sometimes say onegaishimasu” when they bow. This is a much more polite word. It’s apparently a tough term to translate, but conveys a “mutual feeling of reciprocity and gratitude.”

Either “osu” or “onegaishimasu” could have inspired General Choi to have his students say “taekwon” when they bow. But it still seems like a leap from terms that connote acknowledgement or gratitude to literally saying “foot fist”. Although, maybe the answer doesn’t lie in the literal meaning at all. I’ve seen TKD practitioners use “taekwon” to do things like sign off on emails. It isn’t reserved for bowing. So it’s been given a secondary meaning that, like “onegaishimasu,” conveys a general sense of respect. But that meaning doesn’t exist outside the world of taekwon-do. To everyone else, “taekwon” only means “foot fist.”

So why do we say “taekwon”?

The explanation I got as a colour belt was that when we say “taekwon” it identifies us as taekwon-do practitioners. As if the TKD-branded doboks, the unique bow and the fact that we’re in a taekwon-do class didn’t make that obvious enough.

I just accepted it as one of those weird martial arts things and didn’t pursue it further. But the question has always been in the back of my mind.

More recently, one of the ITFs put out a protocol document which states that saying “taekwon” represents the physical side of the art, indicating that the person is physically present. (We don’t say “do” because the act of bowing indicates the “do”.)

In Alex Gillis’ book, A Killing Art, he states that shortly after General Choi came up with the name “taekwon-do” he had people yell it to help provide legitimacy to the name.

These things provide a little more information, but the answer is far from complete. It’s like throwing a shovelful of dirt into a giant hole. Technically, it helps fill it in, but in reality it leaves a lot to be done.

So I still don’t have an answer. And it’s still a nagging question. All I know is that saying “taekwon” seems more ridiculous to me than ever before. There’s no harm in saying it, of course, but try replacing it with “foot fist” for a week and see if you don’t feel the same way I do.

But whatever you do, please, for the love of everything sacred, don’t say “taekwon” to an inanimate object. It can’t say it back.

  • Jay Lee

    This had me laughing — it’s hilarious once you point it out!

  • TT

    In my school, we say “pil sung,” meaning “certain victory.”

    • Interesting. I’ve heard of the term “pil sung” before, but I didn’t know that a) it means “certain victory” (although that makes sense, considering “sung” can mean “winner”) and b) that people say it when they bow. What taekwon-do organization is your school with?

  • Missi Rogge

    We say pilsung as well in my school, as a greeting to our instructor and other students, and also when we bow to the flags and instructor at the beginning of class. We say kamsamida when we bow to our instructor at the end of class.