Marshal vs. Martial: Do You Know The Difference?

It’s not enough that martial and marshal are pronounced the same, is it? No, the English language has to further complicate things, because while these homophones, martial and marshal, have different meanings, they both involve some overlapping concepts of law and war. And adding to the understandable confusion of these words is marshall, with two Ls.

Let’s marshal, shall we say, the facts, and bring some order to the differences among martial and marshal and marshall.

What does martial mean?

Martial is an adjective that variously means “warlike,” “associated with war or the military,” or “characteristic of a warrior.” Sometimes, martial can be used with figurative force, as in His parents took a very martial attitude towards discipline. First recorded in English around 1325–75, martial ultimately comes from Mars, the Roman god of war.

Martial is the adjective used in the expressions martial law and martial arts, two phrases where many of us most often encounter the word martial.

What is martial law?

The primary meaning of martial law is “the law temporarily imposed upon an area by state or national military forces when civil authority has broken down or during wartime military operations.” In other words, ordinary, civil law and authority is suspended in an area, and the military takes control.

The term martial law was first recorded in the 1500s, though the imposition of it—or fear thereof—has influenced ancient and modern history alike. The power to declare martial law varies by country.

The US Constitution does not include direct references to martial law, but the Supreme Court has interpreted a clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 15, to be exact) on calling forth the militia as allowing Congress and the president to impose martial law. Governors also have powers—explicitly stated in many state constitutions—to impose martial law.

The imposition of martial law in the US are rare, but notable. And whether or not the phrase martial law was invoked or declared as such, major instances of martial law, according to experts, include Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War and in Hawaii after the Pearl Harbor attack during World War II. Natural disasters, labor strikes, and unrest around school desegregation have also resulted in martial law.

Not all uses of federal or national armed forces for domestic disorder constitute martial law, though, in popular discussions, their use may be called or likened to martial law, so extreme is it in American society for the military to take over civil authority. Interest in and concerns around martial law spiked in 2020 after President Trump threatened to use the federal military to control protests across the country against violence inflicted on Black people involving the police.

Learn more about martial law in our Homework Help on the term.

What are martial arts?

Martial arts refers to any of the traditional forms of Asian self-defense or combat that utilize physical skill and coordination without weapons, often practiced as sport. Forms include karate, tae kwon do, judo, jujitsu, aikido, and kung fu.

A recent, popular combat sport is mixed martial arts, or MMA, which draws on various traditional martial arts as well as boxing and wrestling.

What does marshal mean?

While martial is only used as an adjective, marshal is a noun or a verb. It’s first recorded around 1225–75, from a French word meaning “commander,” in turn from Germanic roots meaning “groom,” as in a person who takes care of horses—which were historically very important in war.

As a noun, marshal can denote a variety people in a positions of authority:

  • a military officer of the highest rank in some armies (field marshal)
  • an officer of a US judicial district, charged with duties similar to those of a sheriff
  • a court officer, attending to judges and serving various process
  • a chief of a police or fire department in some cities
  • a police officer in some communities
  • a sky marshal, who rides on planes to protect from hijacking
  • a higher officer of royal household or court
  • a grand marshal, especially a ceremonial leader of events like parades

Note: a marshal who performs duties in a court is not to be confused with a court-martial, which is a type of judicial court for people in the military charged with military offenses.

As a verb, marshal today chiefly means “to arrange in proper order; set out in an orderly manner; arrange clearly,” as in After the hurricane, the community marshalled resources to help with relief and recovery. 

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How to use martial and marshal

If you’re not sure whether you should use martial or marshal, determine what part of speech you need. If it’s an adjective, use martial. If it’s a noun or verb, use marshal.

Context helps, too, when deciding between martial and marshal. If you need something to describe war or the military (or things connected to them in some way), use martial. If you need a term for the name of an office, use marshal. Unless it’s a misspelling, martial is not used as a verb.

What about marshall?

If your first or last name is Marshall, we haven’t forgotten about you.

Marshall is almost always a proper noun, appearing in names. Chief Justice John Marshall, the Marshall Plan, the Marshall Islands. As a name, Marshall is, indeed, based on marshal—one of many occupations that became adopted as surnames, and later taken up as given names.

But there is one notable exception: Martial, a first-century ad Roman poet known for his epigrams. Hey, you don’t need us to tell you at this point that English isn’t always the most … orderly of languages.

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