By: Ferd, PTK-Peninsula/PTK-SMF
The origin of the word kali has been a major source of ongoing contention within the Filipino martial arts community primarily because many historians and FMA masters alike, don't know the exact definition of the word or where it came from. The closest original (Malay) word that seems to make the most sense is kalis, which means blade or sword but that too hasn't been clearly proven. The fact that the first half of the word kali is comprised of the baybayin symbol "ka," not to mention the Filipinos' fondness for acronyms complicates matters even further and has led to numerous unproven theories and arguments about the word's origin and meaning. Many say kali is in fact the original name of the pre-colonial Filipino martial arts - this is historically inaccurate since the islands have hundreds of different tribes, each of whom have its own traditions, language and of course methods of fighting. In fact, Filipino was a collective term used by the Spanish conquerors to describe all the tribes that reside within the Philippine archipelago.
Some claim that the term kali was originated here in the United States, by grandmasters who immigrated here and wanted to differentiate their form of Filipino martial arts from arnis or eskrima. There's even that famous story of the blind Filipina princess who is said to have invented kali and that's why it "looks graceful and feminine in motion," which is total BS to anyone with an ounce of sense. Many of these tribes didn't even have a name for it... it's simply a way of fighting and survival. And since individual tribes relied on their combat skills for survival, they were generally secretive about it - in more modern times it's usually taught only to family members and to close friends of the master's family. Many FMAers latch on to whatever they've been told by their masters without doing their own research or simply because that's what the majority says it is, even when the claims are inconsistent and blurry at best, which is why there's so many arguments over the subject.
In reality, no one truly knows (yet) and there has been no real documented evidence to support the claim that kali is the original martial art of the Philippine archipelago... Filipino martial arts have been generally known by umbrella terms such as eskrima, arnis de mano, kali, even by the atrocious misnomer "Filipino stick-fighting." Eskrima (origin esgrimir or esgrima) and arnis (origin arnes) are simply Spanish derivatives used to describe the Filipino combat arts that involve weaponry. Kali then is simply "fighting with bladed weapons." Whether or not it is the true, original name of the Filipino martial arts remains to be seen.