March has many different meanings; the Oxford English Dictionary has six different entries for march as a noun and two as a verb. But the sense considered here is the one of walking or moving forward.
The word first appears in English in the mid-fifteenth century as a verb meaning to walk in step and in time, to move as a military unit. It’s first known appearance in English is in Henry Loverich’s poem The History of the Holy Grail, written sometime before 1450, where Loverich writes of the war between King Lambor and the Saracen King Varlans:
It happede he hadde An Olde Cosin,
and vppon him Marchede, & was Sarrasyn,
but that Cristened nowe he was;
and to-Gederis sore werreden In eche plas.
(It happened that he had an old cousin, and he marched against him, and he had been a Saracen, but he now was christened; and they warred greatly with each other in every place.)
It, like many new words of the late Middle Ages, comes into English from French, which had a verb marcher, originally meaning to trample, but coming to mean to walk. The French verb has cognates in many different Romance and Germanic languages, and march’s ultimate origin is unknown. The two leading hypotheses are that it either comes from an Old High German verb marchon, meaning to mark (Old English had a cognate verb mearcian which gives us our modern to mark), or that it comes from the Latin marcus meaning hammer (the “trample” sense being key here).
The noun march, meaning an act of marching, comes down the pike by the year 1575. It appears in George Gascoigne’s poem The Fruites of Warre from that year:
If drummes once sounde a lustie martch in deede, Then farewell bookes, for he will trudge with speede.
Metaphorical marching, referring to steady and continuous progress, as in the phrase the march of time, appears by 1589 as a verb and by 1625 as a noun. George Puttenham writes of style in his 1589 The Arte of English Poesie:
Finally the base things to be holden within their teder, by a low, myld, and simple maner of vtterance, creeping rather than clyming, and marching rather than mounting vpwardes.
And playwright John Fletcher includes in his 1625 The Humorous Lieutenant the line:
Our lives are but our martches to our graves.
Of course, nowadays not all marches are military. Protesters are fond of marching for or against various causes, but such protest marches are a relatively new phenomenon. In 1908, various groups of unemployed workers staged “hunger marches” on and in London demanding jobs. Many of these workers were veterans of the Boer War and some groups were extremely well organized, marshaled, and led by “sergeants,” marching in formation, and accompanied by ambulances, bands, and the like. And so the protest march was born. Many subsequent protesters have used the word march, but few have been as militaristic in organization and demeanor as their 1908 inspiration. And of course, the irony in modern anti-war protesters using a military tactic to stop a war is noteworthy.
“march, v.2,” “march, n.5,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2000.
“marchen, (v.(2)), Middle English Dictionary, 2001.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton