I was asked by an acquaintance whether “march” was related to “mare”, on the basis that horses take part in military parades, and, er, march. It’s not, of course, but it did set me wondering about when the word made its debut in English.
We first find march in the mid 15th century, and it appears in the poem by Henry Loverich, The History of the Holy Grail, from before 1450 (the precise date is not recorded). You can see it here on the second line:
It happede he hadde An Olde Cosin,
and uppon him Marchede, & was Sarrasyn,
but that Cristened nowe he was;
and to-Gederis sore werreden In eche plas
Here it is used in a military sense, not just with the idea of walking in step, but to mean “go to war”.
So where did it come from. Well, that is an easy question to answer. It comes from Middle French marcher. Today this word means “walk”, but it was originally used with the sense “trample, tread on”. It derives from the Old French form marchier.
This is where the story gets a little hazy. There are two main theories on the origin from here, although the truth is, of course, that we don’t know.
Let’s take a look at the possibilities. Firstly, it may have come from Old German marchon, meaning “mark”. Proponents of this theory point at Old English cognate mearcian, which ultimately became “mark” in modern English, and suggest it may be related to the now obsolete use of march to mean “border”. This would then be traced to a Frankish root, *markon.
Secondly, march may have come from Latin marcus, meaning “hammer”, via Gallo-Roman word *marcare. You might be wondering how “hammer” could come to be used in this way, but the crucial point is the idea of tramping the feet, perhaps like the rhythmic beat of a hammer.
Words in other Romance languages – Spanish marchar, Italian marciare, Portuguese marchar – are thought to have derived from the French.