The Grammarphobia Blog

The original martinet

Q: Bill O’Reilly said on Fox News the other day that a man who’s a strong leader in America today can expect to be called a bully, a tyrant, a martinet, and other negative terms. Where does ”martinet” come from?

A: John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins traces the usage back to “the name of Jean Martinet, a 17th-century French army officer who invented a system of drill.”

Ayto notes that the first appearance of the term in English—in The Plain-Dealer, a 1677 play by William Wycherley—was a reference to the drill system devised by Martinet, a lieutenant colonel:

“What, d’ye find fault with Martinet? Let me tell you, sir, ’tis the best exercise in the world; the most ready, most easy, most graceful exercise that ever was us’d.”

By the 1700s, the term meant a military drillmaster as well as “a rigid, inflexible, or merciless disciplinarian,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here’s an example of the more general sense, from Tancred; or The New Crusade, an 1847 novel by Benjamin Disraeli:

“She knew that the fine ladies … were moral martinets with respect to any one not born among themselves.”

The most recent OED example is from The White Dove, a 1986 novel by Rosie Thomas (pen name of the British romance writer Janey King):

“The grey, starched martinet in her office lined with bound copies of nursing journals.”

As you may be aware, the word “martinet” has had many other meanings since it showed up in English in the early 1400s.

It has meant a bird (a martin or swift), a student at the University of Paris, a watermill, a siege engine, a demon, and a cat-o’-nine-tails once used in French schools.

Why a cat-o’-nine-tails?

The OED suggests that tails of the whip supposedly resembled the forked tail of a swallow (a martin is a swallow). However, we wonder if the name of that 17th-century drillmaster may have influenced the usage.

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