In French a cat o' nine tails is called a martinet, and the origins of the word serve to highlight both the similarities and the differences between the intertwined histories of France and England.

When I was little my mother threatened to use a martinet on me. It was of course not even an empty threat but a joke, made with obvious sarcastic tone. But I was a little boy, I didn't pick up the tone and the threat went far beyond its humorous intent and scared me into submission. The main reason for my fear was that I had no idea what a martinet was.

The word seemed to combine marteau, hammer, with the diminizing suffix -inet, evoking a tiny hammer which I imagined precisely hitting strategic areas of my body for optimized amounts of pain. It was many years later that I learned that a martinet was really a whip with several lashes, a vicious punishment to which I would have largely preferred the dreaded mini-hammer of my childhood.

However, even after the threat of the device was cleared from my mind, the word still intrigued me. Most words have obvious etymology which holds a key to their meaning, the meaning of words being both the foundation and principle of all human understanding. How could the word martinet, which must point to a sort of hammer, instead mean a sort of whip?

The word comes from the 17th century and the key to its meaning is the case. The 17th century is known in France as le grand siècle, the grand century, because it was during that era that France returned to its rightful usual place as Europe's first power, not just politically, but also intellectually. A lot of the aspects of what is universally recognized as one of the richest cultures of humanity were created or solidified over this century, under the patronage of its idle nobility: cuisine, fashion, ballet, modern poetry, literature, theatre and other arts. The reason many of those English words are French is because the 17th century was also the century when French definitively replaced Latin as the universal language of the European elite.

And as always, cultural prosperity is only achieved behind the shield of political superiority, and this was notably thanks to Louis XIV's military reforms.

During the 16th and most of the 17th centuries the regal armies of Europe's rulers were almost entirely mercenary. Unconcerned with the outcome of the conflict or anybody's property or interests, their troops pillaged the land they lived off, ignoring all the rules of chivalry or restraint to which national or aristocratic troops were at least supposed to abide. Captains of companies, as they were called, were businessmen, contracting their work to the highest bidders, often changing sides during a battle if they deemed it profitable.

Louis XIV decided to turn his mercenary army into a national army of professionals, which obviously posed a serious human resources problem: how to submit people to whom venality is an integral part of their trade to the incorruptibility which national service requires? During his sweeping administrative reforms, Louis had created the civilian rank of intendant général, trusted inspectors he could and did deploy to investigate any aspect of his administration and make sure it functioned properly. There would be an intendant général appointed for everything from taxes to the postal service.

The first intendant général for the King's army was a civil servant by the name of Jean Martinet (there we are!), who had no choice but to enforce discipline frequently and ruthlessly. He had corrupt officers publicly whipped with a whip with several lashes and knotted ends, which came to be named after him.

And this is where the comparison between the cat o' nine tails and the martinet becomes interesting. Both were used as tools of military discipline and draw their odd names from military jargon, but one came from the navy while the other came from the army, just as England predominantly fought on sea and France on land. On the French side, the martinet being named after a civil servant is quite a commentary on France's millenial and ruthless bureaucracy.

But beyond those common points and differences, the similar origins show a similar necessary worldview. Countries were only ever built with swords, swords which were wielded by their kings. Having a strong military for their country was (is) not just an affair of politics but of survival. These kings enrolled their hapless subjects into war to become this sword. Since they were largely involuntary conscripts the machine had to resort to ruthless ways to maintain discipline, such as flogging with a special kind of whip specially designed to induce more destruction and pain.

Whether you call it cat o' nine tails or martinet, this tool is the perfect example of how objects are designed by their purpose. Of how human machinery creates its own cogs to run better, smoothly, ruthlessly.


I am informed by wertperch that in English a martinet means a tyrant while smartalix points out "that martinet is also a term for a mean nitpicking officer to this day." Interesting. See what I said about French being a universal language?