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History of the Word 'Martyr'

Updated on May 29, 2014


The origin of the word martyr is obscure, although many scholars believe that it was derived from a Sanskrit base meaning “to bear in mind” or “remember”. Others argue that martyr is not of Indo-European descent at all. Despite the mystery of its ultimate origin, it is undeniable that the word is very old, first appearing in Old English in the tenth century in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, describing “a person who chooses to suffer death rather than renounce faith in Christ or obedience to his teachings.”

In the early eleventh century, the word began to be used as a verb, describing the act of someone being put to death or giving their life as a martyr, although it is generally more common to use martyr as a noun. There are numerous variations of the word’s spelling and martyr, in some form or fashion, is sprinkled throughout the Romance languages – martyr in French; mártir in Portuguese and Spanish; and martire in Italian. It is also common in Germanic languages, but in most cases, the Germanic form of the word is taken from Latin. In English, the spelling used is borrowed from the French.

Martyrdom is not confined solely to Christian believers. The term can be used to describe anyone that dies for something they firmly believe in. For example, Socrates, as stated by Joseph Hall in Invisible World, was a “heathen martyr”. Although he did not die for Christ, Socrates was put to death because his ideas were too radical for his contemporaries, and using this sense of the word, that made him just as much of a martyr as Steven or John the Baptist. Many religions have the belief that an act of martyrdom will give them access to Paradise, like the New Indian religion shahid mentioned in the 1881 Calcutta Review and Islam, referenced by G. Gordan Liddy in Monkey Handlers in 1990.

Jacques-Louis David, "The Death of Socrates"
Jacques-Louis David, "The Death of Socrates" | Source

Martyrdom as Religious Persecution

Martyrs are well-respected as heroes by many, having made the ultimate sacrifice – giving their lives – for a belief so strong that they could not deny it. The Roman Catholic Church in particular lists their liturgy martyrs as ranking higher than the other saints. The Bible contains the accounts of numerous martyrs in this sense of the word, one of the first being in a 1611 version of the book. Acts xxii says, “When y’ blood of thy martyr Steuen was shed,” referring to a man in the Bible named Steven who was stoned to death for his beliefs. The stoning of Steven is one of the first accounts of martyrdom in the Bible.

After King Charles I’s execution in 1649, many of his subjects declared that his death had been “an act of religious persecution,” thus declaring him to be a martyr. In his 1661 work Live Actors Murder Charles I, George Bate declares that “If ever King of England went to Heaven, our glorious martyr King Charles did.” Likewise, John Evelyn refers to the late king in his diary as “K. Charles our Martyr.” While martyrdom is often thought of as someone who dies for their cause, it is true that many perceive the word to mean a voluntary sacrifice of life and thus do not consider anyone who did not willingly lay down their life a martyr. Anna Jameson displayed this when she spoke of St. Edward, claiming that “his death was not voluntary, nor from any religious cause,” denying that the saint was a martyr.

Other Meanings

Martyr took on another, more ironic, meaning in the mid-1300s in the Ayenbite of Inwyt but did not appear in this context in English until the next century in John Wyclif’s works. In 1577, Thomas Vaultrollier took the idea of Christian martyrdom and turned it around to make a statement about the lawmen of the day, suggesting that “The doers of the lawe…are rightly called the Deuils martyrs. They take more paynes…in purchasing hell…then the Martyrs of Christ doe in obtaining heauen.” By taking a respected concept and applying it to dying for hell rather than heaven, Vaultrollier made a statement on the corrupt nature of the world in a way that was new to the time.

Although this meaning of the word is now obsolete, a martyr has also been defined as someone who, as a victim, suffers to or by something until they die. In one of his poems, James Shirley says, “Choose to love me, or deny, I will not be so fond to die A martyr to thy cruelty.” Walter Scott, in Ivanhoe, uses the same sense of the word to apply not to the dismissal by a lover like Shirley, but to “dying martyrs by hunger, by thirst, and by pestilence.” It has also been known to be used in a humorous context, describing someone who is in constant suffering, or rather, who behaves like there is nothing good in their lives. This is almost an ironic usage, considering the fact that many of these so-called “martyrs” complain about their lives constantly, but have never had to sacrifice anything that a true martyr, in the original sense of the word, has given up. It was first used in this way in 1599 in Hist. Syr Clyomon & Clamydes.

All information, unless otherwise cited, is from The Oxford English Dictionary online:

“Martyr.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford English Dictionary, 2011. Web. 17 Feb. 2012.

Martyrdom Today

Sadly, although the word is so old, dating back to the 900s, it is still a word being put into use far too often today. In 1997, John Bowker in World Religions gave the startling fact that “it is possible that there have been more martyrs in the 20th century than in any others.” While the background of this simple word is so rich and complex, it is a shame that such a word even need to exist. As long as there are beliefs and religions in the world, it is safe to assume that martyr is a word that will remain in our vocabulary. It is not entirely a bad thing, however, because although a martyr is generally someone who died for a cause they believed in, it has now become a way of honoring these brave people for never giving up their faith, even to their last breath.


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    • Elizabeth Bowers profile imageAUTHOR

      Elizabeth Wilson 

      5 years ago from Tennessee

      Thank you very much!

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      5 years ago from The Beautiful South

      Very interesting read and I would think it is indeed about religion and holding to a faith. May the day come there no longer needs to be such. ^


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