For all intents and purposes, eskrima, arnis and kali all refer to the same family of Filipino weapon-based martial arts and fighting systems.
In Luzon they may go by the name of arnis, arnis de mano, sinawali, pagkalikali, pananandata (use of weapons), didya, kabaroan (blade usage) and kaliradman. In the Visayas and Mindanao, these martial arts have been referred to as eskrima, kali and kalirongan. Kuntaw and silat are separate martial arts that have been practiced in the islands.
Both eskrima and arnis are loans from Spanish and ultimately from Old Frankish:
* Eskrima is a Filipinization of the Spanish word for fencing (esgrima).
* Arnis comes from arnes, Old Spanish for armor (harness is an archaic English term for armor which comes from the same roots as the Spanish term). It is derived from the armor costumes used in Moro-moro stage plays where actors fought mock battles using wooden swords. Allegedly, the practice of weaponry by the peasants or Indios was banned by the Spaniards during colonial times and the Moro-moro stick fights were a "disguised" form of continued practice of indigenous martial arts.
The name 'kali' is primarily used in the United States and Europe, and seldom in the Visayas, in some cases being an unknown word to eskrima practitioners. The term is used mostly in Mindanao, but due to the popularity of the term outside of the Philippines and the influence of foreign practitioners the term has now been accepted as a synonym for eskrima and arnis.
In their Cebu Eskrima Myth distributed by Lex libris, Dr. Ned Nepangue and Tinni Macachor contend that the word did not exist until the 1960s when two well-known eskrimadors in the United States popularized it to distinguish what they taught from other styles. One belief is that the word comes from tjakalele, a tribal style of stick-fencing from Indonesia. This is supported by the similarities between tjakalele and eskrima techniques, as well as Mindanao's proximity to Indonesia. Numerous alternative theories attempt to explain the term's origin:
* Kali may be a portmanteau of the Cebuano words "ka"mot, or "ka"may meaning hand or body, and "li"hok, meaning motion.
* There exist numerous similar terms of reference for martial arts such as kalirongan, "kalibanga", kaliradman and pagkalikali. These may be the origin of the term kali or they may have evolved from it. Since eskrima and arnis are derived from Spanish words, the preference for the term kali by foreigners is due to its lack of a definitive foreign origin and an attempt to preserve authenticity of a name that has otherwise been lost to history.
Practitioners of the arts are called eskrimador for those who call their art eskrima, arnisador for those who call theirs arnis and kalista or mangangali for those who practice kali.