Bang on the mark.

Dear Word Detective: I have been teaching marksmanship for the past five years and I have been a pistol shooter for ten years now. One day, I was asked by a student about the origin of the word “marksmanship.” I am not really sure about my answer but I told them that perhaps the word is derived from the Mark’s rifle in the same manner that the word “sniper” is derived from the word “snipe” (a type of small bird found in India). — Jack Palanca.

That is a darn good question. I didn’t have much luck tracking down your reference to “Mark’s rifle,” but it is true that the word “sniper,” meaning a military sharpshooter, comes from the “snipe,” a small bird found in marshlands in Europe, Asia and New Zealand. Snipe are, apparently, quite hard for hunters to hit, leading to the verb “to snipe,” meaning to shoot very precisely at an animal or person. “Sniping” also usually consists of a single shot, which gave us the figurative sense of “to snipe” meaning “to verbally attack sharply and quickly,” often with a single sly gibe (“Although adult factions may have made peace with each other, their children on the way to school may continue sniping at each other for generations,” 1959). “Snipe” as a noun also became a derogatory term, leading to “guttersnipe,” originally a Wall Street epithet for shady stock traders who conducted business on street corners.

“Marksman,” meaning an accomplished sharpshooter, rests on a special meaning of the common English word “mark.” The original meaning of “mark” when it first appeared in English, based on Germanic roots, was “boundary or limit.” In Old English, “mark” had taken on the logical sense of “an object or sign denoting a boundary,” which underlies many of our modern uses of “mark” to mean a notation or sign signifying something.

One of the early uses of “mark” in English, around the late 13th century, was to mean “target or other object set up to be shot at by an archer.” This was extended to mean any target shot at, and even used figuratively to mean the “target” of a scheme or ruse (as criminals today still refer to the victim of a swindle as “the mark”).

Oddly enough, one meaning of “marksman,” when it first appeared in the early 17th century, was “a person regarded as a victim or target.” But that meaning quickly gave way to our modern usage meaning “a person skilled in shooting.” So whatever the story of “Mark’s rifle,” the word “marksman” simply means one who is skilled at hitting the “mark” or target.

1 comment on this post.
  1. Thomas Bartlett:

    You say “one meaning of “marksman,””….”was “a person regarded as a victim or target.”” and that the meaning quickly gave way to our modern meaning.

    It got me thinking. Wouldn’t the phrase ‘to be a marked man’ be a descendant of that original meaning?

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