The Grammarphobia Blog

On markets and marts

Q: I’m curious about why the short form of “market” is “mart” and not “mark.” Was the usage influenced by Kmart?

A: No, “mart” appeared in the Middle Ages, hundreds of years before the S.S. Kresge Company opened its first Kmart store in 1962. And it wasn’t a shortening of “market” either, at least not in English. The two terms came into English separately from different sources, though they’re  etymologically related.

“Mart,” which showed up in the early 1400s, comes from Middle Dutch, where marct and its colloquial form mart were derived from the Old Dutch markat. The Dutch words ultimately come from mercātus, classical Latin for market or fair

“Market,” which first appeared in the early 900s, was borrowed from either medieval Latin, Germanic, or French, but it too ultimately comes from mercātus.

When “market” arrived in Old English, it meant a “meeting or gathering together of people for the purchase and sale of provisions or livestock, publicly displayed, at a fixed time and place,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest OED example is from a document, dated 963, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of Old English writing from the 800s to the 1100s: “Ic wille þæt markete beo in þe selue tun” (“I will be at that market in the same town”).

In, the 1200s, “market” came to mean an “open space or covered building in which vendors gather to display provisions (esp. from stalls or booths), livestock, etc., for sale,” Oxford says.

The dictionary’s first example is from a sermon written around 1275 in the Kentish dialect: “So ha kam into þe Marcatte so he fond werkmen þet were idel” (“So he came into the market and found workmen that were idle”).

Over the years, “market” has taken on many other senses, including a geographical area for commerce, 1615 (as in “the French market for silk”); the state of commercial activity, 1776 (“the market for wool is weak”); short for “stock market,” 1814; in the compound “supermarket,” 1931; and the operation of supply and demand, 1970 (“the market has many virtues”). Dates are from the first Oxford citations; examples are ours.

When “mart” showed up in Middle English, it referred to a “regular gathering of people for the purpose of buying and selling,” according to the OED. The dictionary’s first example is from “The Libelle of Englyshe Polycye,” an anonymous political poem written around 1436:

“And wee to martis of Braban charged bene Wyth Englyssh clothe” (“And we carried a load of good English cloth to the marts of Braban [in the Low Countries]”). From Political Poems and Songs Relating to English History (1861), edited by Thomas Wright.

In the late 16th century, the OED says, “mart” came to mean “any public place for buying and selling, as a marketplace, market hall, etc.” The dictionary’s earliest example, expanded here, is from Churchyards Challenge (1593), a collection of prose and prose by the English author and soldier Thomas Churchyard:

“As nothing could, escape the reach of arts / Schollers in scholes, and merchantes in their marts / Can ply their thrift, so they that maketh gold, / By giftes of grace, haue cunning treble fold.”

Today, “mart” usually refers to “a shop or stall carrying on trade of a specified kind (as shoe mart, etc.),” the OED says, adding, “This latter use is particularly prevalent in the names of retail businesses, esp. in N. Amer.

It’s hard to tell from the dictionary’s citations when “mart” first referred to a single retail store rather than a place housing various vendors. The first clear example, which we’ve expanded, is from the Dec. 17, 1831, issue of a London weekly, the Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction:

“It’s good-bye to Wellingtons and Cossacks, Ladies’ double channels, Gentlemen’s stout calf, and ditto ditto. They’ve all been sold off under prime cost, and the old Shoe Mart is disposed of, goodwill and fixtures, for ever and ever.” (From a fictional account of the sale of a family’s shoe store in London.)

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