Marshal - Marshall - martial - Martial

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Beware these homophones.


  • The [noun] 'a marshal' was originally a person looking after horses ("*marho-skalko-z 'horse-servant', OED; "marah horse + scalh servant Chambers 21st century dictionary. This meaning is now obsolete (although it is the origin of most of the occupational surnames). Because of the importance of horses in the past, marshal came to be a title of importance in Europe.
    • In the British royal court, it is the Earl Marshal who is in charge of the coronation and other state occasions, such as the royal procession to the State opening of Parliament.
    • In military organizations, Marshal is nowadays the highest rank. In many countries, it is ceremonial only; active Marshals are only appointed during major wars. The British equivalent in the army of what Americans call a 'five star General' is the Field Marshal, a rank only given to members of the Royal family, and to serving soldiers during the time of major wars - i.e. commanding forces larger than those employed in peacetime. Field Marshals from the second World War include Dill, Gort, Wavell, Alanbrooke, Alexander, Montgomery and Slim). Marshal of the Royal Air Force is the equivalent rank in the RAF; in the Navy, it is Admiral of the Fleet. (The marshal of a ship was, historically, a petty officer charged with maintaining discipline; the equivalent in the army was the Provost Marshal, "whose precise duties and powers have varied at different times and in different countries" (OED).) Napoleon named his best generals, men such as Ney, Soult, Massena, Bernadotte and Murat, Marshals of the Empire.
    • In the USA, a marshal is a law enforcement officer. In western films, a local sheriff may often be assisted by (or in conflict with) a federal marshal.
  • The basic meaning in Present-day English of the verb 'to marshal' is 'to arrange', 'to put in an appropriate order'. This is why the job of the Earl Marshal (above) includes managing - marshalling - royal processions. In military terms, the most important function of a Marshal was to dispose of his troops and other resources appropriately.
    • A lawyer presenting a case in court must try to marshal the evidence, as a student arguing a point of view in an essay should seek to marshal the facts - that is, 'arrange them in the best order'.
    • A marshalling yard in a railway is an area of sidings where trucks and carriages may be assembled in the appropriate order to make up trains.
  • The name (proper noun) Marshall may be best known in
    • the Marshall Plan, the name by which the United States' generous European Recovery Program is usually called. This was the enormous investment to redevelop the economies of the European countries after the end of World War II. The name comes from the then American Secretary of State, George Marshall (1880-1959). (Here, Marshall is a surname which becomes the eponym of an idea, here a policy.)
    • Marshall (as a forename) McLuhan, a Canadian regarded as one of the founders of a formal communication theory.
    • The Marshall Islands is a republic in the Pacific. It was the scene of fighting in World War II, and contains Bikini Atoll, famous as the site of nuclear tests (and the root of the name of a two-piece swimsuit). The Islands are named after a British sailor who landed there in 1799, John Marshall (1748-1819).
    • The adjective martial means 'to do with war'. (It is not completely senseless to confuse it with Marshal in the sense of the military ranks; but it is a confusion nevertheless.) It is derived from the name of Mars (or Mart-), the deity in ancient Rome who looked after war and military matters. You will commonly see it in such phrases as
    • martial arts, to mean some forms of (mostly unarmed) combat;
    • court martial, a trial under military law, practice and personnel;
    • [he has] a martial bearing - he carries himself like a (well-drilled) soldier (on the parade ground). (You may also want to see AWE's page on martial - militant - military.)
  • As a name, Martial (an English version of the Latin Martialis) is mostly used for Marcus Valerius Martialis (born between 38 and 41 CE; died between 102 and 104 CE). He is best known for his Epigrams.