When Lisa and I were training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Brazil last summer, Rolker Gracie led a class, and many American and Australian students in the room were saying “Oss,” as I have heard it appear and be used for the last few years: to acknowledge the instruction, and indicate a collective affirmation that we would now train.
After about five minutes of this, he stopped class, and looked around, shaking his head, and shaking a finger, saying “No oss. No oss.” In the best English he could manage, he told us to knock it off, and said “Oss for karate guys, not Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. We don’t say that. No oss.”
With that he sent us back to training, mostly feigning deafness to the involuntary utterances of it that followed his instruction for the rest of class. (There was a lot of “Osu- um, I mean yes sir” afterwards.)
When we were talking about the seminar at lunch, people were talking about his banishment of the term. Some were saying it was weird that he’d shun the saying of respect. Others, like me, wondered when people started saying it, and how it became so pervasive in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, particularly faced with the fact that no, it did not come from japanese jujitsu through early Brazilian masters, Rolker being one of the grandmaster’s sons.
In fact, Pedro Valente recently relayed a story about the term in relation to grandmaster, Helio Gracie: “One time grandmaster Helio was invited to participate in a TV interview and in the end they asked him to say Osu. Never having heard that before he said Oish. So whenever someone says Osu to me I say Oish back!! Lol”
The article is written by karate practitioner and blogger, Jesse Enkamp, who notes that, despite its rapid evolution into a “handy, all-encompassing utility word,” it has a charged masculinity, and one best not use it in Japan with a woman, or with someone if higher rank/status/age than you. His article seems to also decry the pervasiveness of “oss” or “osu” in karate today.
Did “Oss” or “Osu” come from the rapid integration of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu into karate schools, and its study by aficionados of other martial arts’ melding of two cultures? Like I said, the Australians were just as emphatically using the term as the Americans at the Brazilian camp we were at. Could this have happened internationally? I believe it did.
As I’ve written about here, I took a hiatus from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for a number of years, and returned to find “Oss” or “Osu” in use in the karate and BJJ school I began training in again. I remember the first time I heard it, and thought “Hmm, that guy said ‘yes’ pretty weird.”
I have never felt comfortable saying it, and even when, like a good lead singer, the instructor of class has encouraged a more vociferous affirmation with an “I can’t hear you,” I have not fallen in the “oss” line, and have only been able to muster “yes.”
It makes me feel like an old fart sometimes, that I look around thinking “that’s not really part of what Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was when I was coming up.” I do find some satisfaction that Helio Gracie, Rolker, Pedro Valente, and other forefathers, seem to be conveying that “oss” is a vernacular infused into BJJ more recently, from without.
Still, if they say it at your gym, anyone should be able to agree that language evolves, and if it is a sign of respect, go ahead and join in. I’ll just be the stubborn old fart mispronouncing “oss” “YES.”