"It is a fun sport, an art, a discipline, a recreational or social activity, a fitness program, a means of self-defense or combat, and a way of life."
That description of judo, from a Web site about that martial art, applies in essence to most martial arts - a simplification that may bug some who specialize in one of them or another. And there are dozens of martial arts.
Which is just one factor that, frankly, bewilders lots of folks about the martial arts. (Not to mention those double vowels or the multiple spellings caused by varying translation into English of Chinese, Japanese or Korean characters.)
Nevertheless, here is an attempt to unravel this tangle of - mostly but not exclusively - athletic endeavor. If you want to pursue a martial art, you do not lack options in Howard County.
In the Department of Recreation and Parks' winter catalog, you could opt for tai chi, Shotokan karate, or Ki aikido, the latter a blend of karate and jujitsu, courtesy of a contractor who has headquarters in Gaithersburg.
At the Columbia Park and Recreation Association, you could have picked budo taijutsu, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, aikido, kendo, judo, or "Martial Arts for Adults," really tae kwon do, which some people call karate.
The Columbia Association also offers tai chi chuan and gigong as part of its "Aerobics Program." That's defensible in that both Chinese arts focus more on health than on self-defense or maiming a foe, but is inconsistent with many sources that consider them martial arts.
The YMCA in Ellicott City offers Seido karate. The county phone directory lists other styles taught at privately operated schools.
What is certain is this: At least dabbling in the martial arts is popular locally. About 500 children per rec department session enroll for classes, plus several hundred more adults. Columbia Association classes total another 250.
"It's not a team sport and that's why a lot want to try it out," said Erin Foley, the rec department supervisor who oversees martial arts offerings.
"Lots of parents are looking for discipline, respect, help with concentration and focus for their kids," said John Bannon, Columbia Association's martial arts director.
"Women, especially, want to learn self-defense," said Kim Bernhardt, an instructor for Tompkins Karate Association in Gaithersburg, which teaches martial arts locally and in three other counties. Men, she said, tend to be more into fitness and discipline, and young men "want to look like guys in the movies."
Most martial arts trace back to ancient Asia, probably China, as far back, some historians say, as 5,000 years.
Most styles begin weaponless, teaching self-defense with hands, feet, stealth and leverage. Some add weapons, such as canes, swords and other devices, later on. A few specialize in one weapon. All teach mental focus and control, but in varying degrees.
Only two arts - judo, of Japanese origin, and tae kwon do, a Korean karate - are recognized as Olympic sports. Judo involves mainly techniques that toss or throw an opponent; tae kwon do involves striking out. Other non-Olympic martial arts conduct national and international championships.
Karate is a relatively modern word that applies to a number of styles characterized by abrupt punches, kicks and strikes. Kung fu, by contrast, covers other styles with moves that are more fluid, said Bernhardt.
Different names derive from the nation of origin, a famed instructor or a blending of styles. There is no recognized, single world authority or federation on the martial arts. Some, in fact, have multiple associations vying for members.
Finally, Bernhardt and Bannon recommend that beginners ask to watch a class or two. Then talk with instructors about the form and emphasis. If you have doubts, start inexpensively with a rec-level class, and if you like that, check out more advanced instruction.
A sampling of martial arts, not all of which are taught in Howard County:
Aikido: Japanese. Focuses on using an opponent's movements against him instead of punching or kicking.
Capoeira: "A Brazilian art form which combines elements of dance, play and ritualistic fighting. ... Its history is deep with warrior rituals from Central Africa," says the Web site www.capoeiragem.com.
Daito ryu aiki bujutsu: Japanese. Claims to be 1,200 years old.
Gatka: Started by the Sikhs of northern India in the 1500s. Kalaripayattu is another Indian style, from the southwestern coast.
Hapkido: Korean. Uses no weapons, but emphasizes "internal energy development" against an opponent.
Jujutsu, or jiu jitsu: Japanese. Developed by the samurai, it concentrates on throws and defenses to various kinds of attack, from being pummeled to choked to being struck with various weapons.
Kendo: Japan. Sword fighting.
Kick boxing: Combines boxing, which, with westernized rules, is about 200 years old, and, among other martial arts, Thai street fighting. Rules bar strikes by any part of the body other than hands and feet.
Krav maga: Israeli. Anything-goes street fighting developed by an Israeli army officer. It is widely taught in American police departments.
Muay Thai: From Thailand. Anything goes in this style of street fighting, including knee and elbow hits, kicking and other disabling moves.
Ninjutsu: You can't have lived through the late 20th century without hearing about the "Ninja Turtles." They practiced a TV version of this Japanese art, which is about 800 years old and developed in opposition to the samurai culture.
Tai chi: Taught now as a gentle, effective exercise regimen, it is an ancient art still practiced widely in China. Best known for its theory of balancing chi, or an inner force, believed to be part of all humans.
Qi gong: An adjunct of tai chi, qi gong is seen as manipulation of one's "life force," or chi, for the improvement of health.
Wushu: Chinese for "martial arts." Also refers to an acrobatic martial art.
Compiled from Internet sites.