Professors of Self Defence

  • Originally published on the site on Thursday, 2nd December 2010

I resolved on putting myself into the hands of some professor of self-defence, who whilst he knocked me about for his amusement, and worked me into a state of complete exhaustion for my improvement in condition as for his own benefit in pocket, should teach me that noble science …

– The works of G.J. Whyte-Melville, Volume 7 (1899)

Although the term “professor of self defence” sounds odd to modern ears, attuned to associate professorship with formal academia, professors of that subject (and of boxing, physical culture, etc.) were common at the time E.W. Barton-Wright opened his Bartitsu School of Arms in London. In fact, Barton-Wright himself was referred to as a professor of self defence by reporter Mary Nugent, in her December 1901 article “Barton-Wright and his Japanese Wrestlers”.

Typically, a professor of self defence circa 1900 was a combat athlete in his post-competitive years, when and if they turned to teaching their skills. In some cases, such as that of Bartitsu School instructor Sadakazu Uyenishi, the term was used to describe still-active competitors who also worked as self defence teachers. Never, apparently, a “rank” to be awarded, antagonistic professorship was simply an honourific title, equivalent to the Japanese sensei or the modern English coach.

… the services of Professor Sandow, Captain Alfred Hutton, Mr Eustace Miles, Mr Fry, and a professional boxer (could) be commandeered, with some capable doctor to assist them. Perhaps, also, some professor of jiu jitsu would be useful, and these distinguished persons could then safely be left to devise a new and improved ‘battel.’

– Chambers’s Journal (1906)

Professorship has also been retained, or has evolved into a specific rank in some contemporary martial arts, including Gracie jiu-jitsucapoeira and kenpo as well as various Filipino martial arts. Curiously, one of the few similar instances of the original implications having survived in modern English is that of traditional Punch and Judy puppeteers, who are customarily called professors.

Although the implications of the word “professor” became increasingly specialised in 20th and 21st century English, and are commonly understood to refer to formal academic rank, the Merriam Webster dictionary offers several definitions:

1: one that professes, avows, or declares
2: a) a faculty member of the highest academic rank at an institution of higher education
b) a teacher at a university, college, or sometimes secondary school
c) one that teaches or professes special knowledge of an art, sport, or occupation requiring skill

That said, in modern English-speaking countries “martial arts professorship” runs a very strong risk of being misunderstood as unethical appropriation of a formal academic title, outside of LARP events such as steampunk conventions.

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