A listener question about a spate of misspellings led us to investigate the meaning and history of "martial law" and George C. Marshall.
One of our listeners wrote in to say that he’d been seeing this phrase misspelled quite a lot, as M-A-R-S-H-A-L-L law. It should be spelled M-A-R-T-I-A-L — as in, related to war, warriors, or the military. The word comes from the medieval Latin “martialis,” meaning something related to Mars, the god of war.
What is martial law?
Martial law describes a situation in which the rule of law is enforced by the military, rather than local police. This usually happens in an emergency, like a zombie apocalypse, when citizens are in panic mode, and local law enforcement can’t maintain public order and safety by themselves. They need federal troops to step in and help.
When has the US had martial law?
Martial law has been imposed in the United States in the past. During the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson imposed martial law within a 4-mile radius of his camp in New Orleans.
In 1934, the governor of California placed the docks of San Francisco under martial law after a dock workers’ strike.
President Lincoln tried to put the entire U.S. under martial law back in the Civil War, but the Supreme Court said it was a no-go.
Let’s jump back to the accidental spelling of “martial” as “M-A-R-S-H-A-L-L.”
What is an eggcorn?
This is a great example of an eggcorn. An eggcorn appears when people replace the right word with a different word that sounds the same (aka, a homophone) and that makes logical sense in its place. The name comes from a woman who thought the word for “acorn”—the nut from an oak tree— was “eggcorn,” which kind of makes sense if you think of an egg as something that grows into a bigger organism.
One common eggcorn is “for all intensive purposes” used in place of “for all intents and purposes.” Another is “old-timers’ disease” used in place of “Alzheimer’s disease.”
Could 'Marshall law' be an eggcorn?
In this case, "Marshall Law" kind of makes sense because folks could assume the concept was created by George C. Marshall. Marshall was the U.S. chief of staff during World War II and one of the most decorated military leaders in American history.
He was also the mastermind behind the Marshall Plan. That was the U.S. program that provided aid to a devastated Western Europe after World War II. So, Marshall Plan, Marshall Law ... it kind of makes sense.
What do Mario Rubio and Eminem have to do with 'Marshall law'?
On a silly note, the phrase “marshall law,” spelled M-A-R-S-H-A-L-L, recently got major attention when Florida Senator Marco Rubio asked citizens via Twitter to “please stop spreading stupid rumors about marshall law.” Seizing on his typo, people immediately created memes featuring Marshall Mathers — aka, rap artist Eminem — photoshopped into a police uniform.
Of course, Eminem’s fans misunderstood, thinking these memes meant that a new Eminem album was on the way. Eminem himself finally had to step into the fray, relaying to his fans via Twitter that, sorry, but Marshall Law involving him was “not a thing.”
So, that’s your tidbit for today. “Martial” is spelled M-A-R-T-I-A-L. It relates to the military, and therefore martial law is law enforced by the military, not the local police.
[UPDATE: A reader rightly noted that another key component of martial law is the government's ability to suspend certain rights, such as the writ of habeas corpus. If you're interested in the history of martial law in the United States, I found this Atlantic article helpful.]
History.com. George C. Marshall (accessed April 1, 2020).
Lamarre, Carl. Sorry Everyone, Eminem Isn't Dropping a New Album Called 'Marshall Law.’ Billoard.com, March 17, 2020 (accessed April 1, 2020).
Mount, Steve. Constitutional Topic: Martial Law. USConstitution.net (accessed April 1, 2020).
Oxford English Dictionary Online. Martial (accessed April 1, 2020).
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.