I am sure you have often heard of someone being described as a martinet. My fascination with the etymology of words led some time ago to query the meaning and origin of the word. Dictionaries define it as referring to one who demands that rules and orders are obeyed – even if it is unnecessary or unreasonable to do so under certain circumstances.

The word has been used in this sense since 1670 for it is derived from the last name of General Jean Martinet, who served under Louis XIV during the Dutch campaign.

A resourceful fellow, Martinet was responsible for several important innovations. For example, he introduced the use of the bayonet into the French army – an idea based on an old tactic used by hunters in Bayonne. This revolutionary weapon allowed the French armies to dispense entirely with the pike men that had had to be included in all groups of musketeers for protection while they reloaded. He also devised pontoon bridges and developed the depot system, a system of storehouses, placed along the sides of roads, which would supply armies on campaign to put a stop to them having to feed off the enemy land.

By 1779 Jean Martinet’s name had become synonymous with the severity of discipline. His military training policies set the pace for the armies of the late 17th-18th century and he is credited in part for transforming the French Army into a fairly effective fighting force through being a severe drillmaster. This naturally made him unpopular among his troops – especially as he was best known for going to the extreme of ordering executions for even minor infractions.

He was killed by friendly fire while leading an infantry assault at the Battle of Duisburg in 1672; perhaps inadvertently killed when he entered the line of fire of his own rear ranks or “accidentally on purpose” in a situation known as fragging – a word that comes from the Vietnam War, meaning that an officer was killed on purpose under cover of an accidental death – for it is possible that someone had simply had enough of his strict training methods!

Gilbert and Sullivan immortalised the behaviour of a martinet in their ballad of the same name. “Sir Berkley was a martinet / A stern unyielding soul / Who ruled his ship by dint of whip / And horrible black hole.


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