We’re informed by The Economist that while overall literacy never seems to improve, people actually seek a dictionary during trying times.
Merriam-Webster, one of the best-known names in American dictionary-making, has for years tweeted about spikes in look-ups for words during major public events. This time of pandemic is no different. The most obvious spikes are for terms like coronavirus itself—up by 1,100,000% (see chart).
But other terms allow the data-watcher to see the crisis develop: people began searching increasingly for epidemic in mid-January, and pandemic in early February. Terms related to prevention have seen a jump as well: quarantine and self-isolation in mid-March, for example. (Side note to etymological sticklers: if you are the type to insist that to “decimate” means to destroy roughly a tenth of something, your quarantine must last 40 days.)
As governments began to act, people sought to understand what was going to be done: draconian, lockdown and triage began surging in February. Martial law, too, but for a specific reason: an American senator, Marco Rubio, tweeted a solecistic reference to “marshall law” on March 16th, leading to the spike in lookups.
Let’s unpack the last sentence in the preceding. First, I found a good definition for “Marco Rubio” at Mother Jones.
Here is Rubio’s infamous “marshall law” tweet.
The Economist refers to Rubio’s usage as “solecistic,” which is an adjective derived from the noun “solecism.”
so·le·cism | ˈsä-lə-ˌsi-zəm , ˈsō-
Definition of solecism
1: an ungrammatical combination of words in a sentence
also : a minor blunder in speech
2: something deviating from the proper, normal, or accepted order
3: a breach of etiquette or decorum
Even if we knew what Rubio meant, and wouldn’t have given it a second thought had we heard him say the words aloud because they sound alike, it’s “martial” law, not “marshall.”
Merriam-Webster provides clarification. Seeing as the word “martial” is an adjective pertaining to war and the military, “martial law” is the state of law applied, enforced and maintained by the military.
Conversely, when used as a noun a marshal (or marshall as accepted alternative spelling) is an official, leader or chief — as in the fire marshal. It also can indicate action; to marshal one’s forces is to lead, arrange or prepare them.
“Martial” is of Latin origin, while “marshal” comes to the English language from old-school Germanic, via France. To Rubio’s credit, he speaks Spanish; it would help us all to be bilingual, even allowing for imperfections in the composition and execution of tweets.