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Is 'Materiel' the Same as 'Material'?

A listener wondered about the word "materiel." What's its deal (and is it related to "personnel")?

By
Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
Episode #865

Doug wrote,

"With the recent invasion of Ukraine, I have heard several news, military, and political commentators say 'materiel' with regard to (what I have gathered through context clues) is supplies, especially military in nature. I don’t know if this is a real, accepted, word in English, with its own distinct definition — or people are using the foreign pronunciation of ‘material’ and just trying to sound smart?"

Thanks for the question, Doug. 

"Materiel" is indeed a word of its own, but it’s a direct borrowing from French. It’s spelled with an E instead of an A near the end, and often has an accent mark above the first E. [Editor's Note: Our CMS doesn't properly display accent marks on all platforms, so we have written the word without the accent mark.] You’re right that it has mostly come to mean military equipment and supplies, and both the Oxford English Dictionary and Etymonline say it’s used as a distinction from "personnel." Countries can send both personnel and materiel. 

"Personnel" also comes to English directly from French, although there may also be a German connection

The OED has the first example with a militaristic meaning in 1819 for both words, and I couldn’t find a reason they hopped into English. The year 1819 is well before World War I. France and the United Kingdom were both involved in the Hundred Days War in 1815, just a few years before "personnel" and "materiel" came into English, so that could have been the time the French words became familiar to the British, but I’m just guessing.

Thanks for the question!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.