An odd moment in this week's confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor came when Senator Orrin Hatch questioned her about a case involving martial arts weapons commonly known in English as "nunchucks" or "nunchuck sticks." The exchange between Hatch and Sotomayor sounded like something you might encounter at a Bruce Lee fan club meeting, not in a high-profile Senate hearing.

Let's go to the transcript:

HATCH: Doesn't your decision in Maloney mean that virtually any state or local weapons ban would be permissible?

SOTOMAYOR: Sir, in Maloney, we were talking about nunchuck sticks.

HATCH: I understand.

SOTOMAYOR: Those are martial arts sticks.

HATCH: Two sticks bound together by rawhide or some sort of a...

SOTOMAYOR: Exactly. And when the sticks are swung, which is what you do with them, if there's anybody near you, you're going to be seriously injured, because that swinging mechanism can break arms, it can bust someone's skull.

HATCH: Sure.

The weapon in question is more properly known as nunchaku, a word that derives from the Okinawan dialect of Japanese. It started off as a farm implement, similar to a flail ("an implement consisting of a handle with a free swinging stick at the end; used in manual threshing"). When martial arts became more popular in the United States in the 1970s, helped along by kung fu movies, nunchaku began to be imported, though the English spelling of the term has varied considerably.

From the start, nunchaku has been the favored rendering among the hardcore martial arts enthusiasts. You can find articles about nunchaku in the magazine Black Belt as early as March 1969. An article entitled "The Nunchaku: Terror for Human Targets" tells of the many "tales of destruction" associated with the weapon, and also shows a demonstration from karate expert Fumio Demura. In 1971, Demura published a book-length guide, Nunchaku: Karate Weapon of Self-Defense.

The name for the weapon quickly got Anglicized to nunchuck, numchuck, and other variations. In a 1972 Superior Court case in New Jersey, the judges sustained a conviction of defendants who were found in possession of several dangerous weapons, including what the local police listed as "one Karate weapon (non-chuck)." The more typical spelling of nunchuck began appearing in Black Belt in February 1974, in a masthead editorial headlined, "And God Created the Nunchuck."

The Oxford English Dictionary explains that the change from nunchaku to nunchuck may in part be due to a quirk of Japanese phonology. When uttered by native speakers, the final /u/ sound of nunchaku is often "devoiced," meaning the larynx doesn't vibrate (resulting in something close to a whisper). Non-natives might not hear the devoiced /u/ at all, so it would sound like nunchak. From there, it's a quick step for Anglophones to nunchuck — thanks to influence from the verb chuck, meaning "to throw," since that's more or less what you do with the weapon. And numchuck or numbchuck might make even more sense (in the manner of so-called "eggcorns"), since if someone chucks the thing at you, you could go numb.

The way that nunchaku got reshaped as nunchuck/numchuck is reminiscent of the "Hobson-Jobsonisms" that I discussed in this space last month. Hobson-Jobson, you may recall, was the title of an Anglo-Indian dictionary that has come to refer to the process of adapting foreign words into the sound system of another language. So, for instance, the Malay word amok "run around violently" got Anglicized as amuck, perhaps under the influence of the English verb muck (up), "make a mess of, destroy or ruin." And if you run amuck with a nunchuck, well, you're pressing your luck.

I leave you with a video clip of the Hatch-Sotomayor exchange, as well as another clip that elucidates the nature of the nunchuck much more clearly.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday July 16th 2009, 2:55 AM
Comment by: Abbas Raza (New York, NY)
Fascinating! I made a pair of nunchucks myself as a kid and while trying to imitate Bruce Lee, almost knocked myself out with a good self-inflicted whack to the head. I suspect many injured themselves trying to be Bruce Lee!
Thursday July 16th 2009, 10:53 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
It was a indeed a very informative reading; thanks very much,Ben!
Thursday July 16th 2009, 1:52 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
As usual...the Best!
The Bruce Lee clip was total hilarity!
Thursday July 16th 2009, 4:36 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
On the American Dialect Society mailing list, Victor Steinbok pointed out a slightly earlier example of nunchuck, in a 1971 article by Gary T. Marx and Dane Archer in the journal American Behavioral Scientist:
Boston's Jewish Defense League carries (in addition to Mace, nightsticks, and Alsatians) a weapon they call a nun chuck---two sixteen-inch-long oak sticks connected by a short length of nylon cord.
Thursday July 16th 2009, 9:30 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.Top 10 Commenter
The nunchuck continues to provide a useful role in population control: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7M8xJgQvbvc http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dN2-p4a6Q3w&NR=1&feature=fvwp

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