Words Worth Knowing: Marshal

The Word Worth Knowing this week is Marshal.


I love going to the parades. I’m a fan of flower-decorated wagons, sticky martial band melodies and characters in colorful costumes. One of the characters that always catches my attention is that typical Marshal who rides a horse, with his jacket with huge shoulder pads and his strange hat adorned with feathers. He certainly seems like a very important character, who has shown his gallantry to earn his medals and his place in front of his troops; but according to history, when the term “Marshal” was invented it was a low position and without any kind of leadership. How did we go from one thing to another? Join me in discovering it below along with the etymology of the word Marshal.


Dictionary Definition

Marshal: Noun. A high official in the household of a medieval king, prince, or noble originally having charge of the cavalry but later usually in command of the military forces (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

Marshal: Noun. An officer of the highest rank in the armed forces of some countries. (Oxford English Dictionary)

Marshal: Verb. To bring together or organize people or things in order to achieve a particular aim. (Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary)


The position of Marshal in the armed forces is rarely used today; now it is mostly given as an honorary position, and is still used in citizen security forces such as police and firefighters; this is why it is an occasionally used word. As the Collins English Dictionary explains, marshal is among the 30,000 most commonly used words.

Although they are no longer as feared as they were in the 18th century, never speak ill of a marshal!

Here are some correct phrases in which this word is used:

“Saturday’s Military Appreciation Days Parade in Myrtle Beach not only has a Grand Marshal, but also an Honorary Grand Marshal who’s 98 years young.”

From WBTW News 13 website Article: Treva Greene named honorary grand marshal for Myrtle Beach Military Appreciation Days parade. 2019

“Sergio Pérez said he came close to running over a marshal during the Monaco Grand Prix.”

From The Guardian website Article: Sergio Pérez relieved after nearly running over marshal at Monaco GP. 2019

A Franklin man has pleaded guilty to three counts of impersonating a deputy US Marshal and making a false statement.”

From News 4 website Article: Franklin man pleads guilty to federal charges of impersonating a Deputy US Marshal. 2019


A humble beginning


The origin of both the military office and the word Marshal dates back to the 11th century. At that time and throughout the Middle Ages the aspect that really marked the strength of an army was its cavalry, ie the number of horses they had to carry to battle, accompanied by their corresponding riders able to attack their opponents from the top of the loins of their beasts.

Because of this, it was of crucial importance that all the horses in an army were well cared for and fed, sometimes even better cared for than the soldiers themselves, and this task was assigned to one or two of the youngest and most novice soldiers. To refer to them was invented the Germanic word *marhskalk, from the proto-Germanic compounds *markhaz, which means “horse” and *skalkaz which means “servant”, so it was simply a “horse-servant”.

Despite the humility of the position, it was a highly respected task, because each marhskalk had to earn the trust of the horses and learn to communicate with them so that they would allow him to brush them, bathe them and even heal some wounds after the battle, which not everyone could achieve. Because of this, the opinion of the marhskalk was often taken into account to develop the military strategies that included the horses, and little by little the charge of marhskalk was related to great military strategists.

Thus from the 13th century the word was adopted by the English language, transformed into “marshal” and already charged with all the honor that had been conferred on it over the years, so it began to define this term as the name of the commanding officer of an army, especially the command of the cavalry forces.

This leaves us with a moral: no job or honorable position is worth less than another. In every job there is something to learn and something to excel at if you put the right effort, and thus get your effort recognized and rewarded, like the former Marshals.

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