martial law

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the law temporarily imposed upon an area by state or national military forces when civil authority has broken down or during wartime military operations.
the law imposed upon a defeated country or occupied territory by the military forces of the occupying power.
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Origin of martial law

First recorded in 1525–35
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is martial law?

Martial law is when a state is put under control of the military, usually temporarily and as a result of an emergency or crisis that has broken down the usual civil authority and order.

How is martial law pronounced?

[ mahr-shuhl law ]

The meaning of martial law 

The phrase martial law dates back to the 1530s, with the adjective martial meaning “pertaining to the military” and ultimately taken from Mars, the Roman god of war.

The exercise of martial law generally occurs in one of two situations: 1) an invading force imposes itself on an occupied territory or 2) a civil authority transfers power over to the military to control a domestic situation.

Many ancient powers, including the Mongolian marauders and Alexander the Great, effectively ruled under martial law in their conquered territories. In more recent history, the American South was put under martial law by the Union Army in the aftermath of the Civil War and on the Hawaiian Islands after Pearl Harbor. In contemporary times, countries like Syria and Egypt have intermittently ceded to martial law during civil unrest.

The phrase and concept is especially associated with states of emergency, when civil leaders respond to dangerous circumstances, such as during natural disasters, violent protests, acts of terrorism, and coups d’état. When they are declared, states of emergency unusually give the military expanded powers of authority and many sometimes implement temporary martial law.

During the 2000–10s in countries including the US and Philippines, the increased militarization of local police forces and concerns over government suspension of the normal rule of law (e.g., as it applies to illegal immigrants or drug users) have led some citizens to fear the imposition of martial law on the citizenry. Here, martial law is associated with tyranny, oppression, and abuse of power.

How is martial law used in real life?

Outside of instances of its imposition, martial law is often warned of during times of high tension and conflict within a country. Countries that have previously experienced martial law, such as the Republic of Ireland, may cite the phrase as a remembrance of past conflict.

Martial law is also the title of several pieces of media, including the 1998 TV show Martial Law, about a Chinese police officer fighting crime in LA, and Martial Law, a 1991 film starring David Carradine as a cop who practices martial arts. These titles, though, pun on martial as it’s used in martial arts.

More examples of martial law:

“Pay attention to this language. This is the kind of language that has preceded the abolition of the right to protest in other countries, as well as calls for martial law in the name of national security.”
—@leahmcelrath, June 2018

“The office of a government-appointed board that compensated victims of human rights abuses in the Philippines during 1972-81 martial law closed permanently at 5 pm on May 11.”
—Melo Acuna, La Croix International, June 2018


This content is not meant to be a formal definition of this term. Rather, it is an informal summary that seeks to provide supplemental information and context important to know or keep in mind about the term’s history, meaning, and usage.

How to use martial law in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for martial law

martial law

the rule of law established and maintained by the military in the absence of civil law
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012