I just finished subtitling one of the bonus features to be found on the Police Academy DVD collection that will be coming out soon. Start saving folks!
One of the actors describes Lieutenant Harris (the nasty teacher in the academy) as "a great Martinet".
As I read this, I found myself back a good 20 years. There was definitely a martinet in our house, although my mum strenuously denies it. It was the sort of object that was used to scare children into being good and I can’t remember my parents ever using it, although I seem to remember it was also very efficient against younger siblings. It had a short wooden handle and leather lashes and you didn’t want it anywhere near your bare legs. I did research it on the internet in the hope of finding a photo to show exactly what it looks like, but I didn’t have the heart to sift through a gazillion porn sites. Apparently, the children who used to fear it are now adults who have found brand new ways to have fun with it.
I obviously immediately thought that this implement of discipline was the origin of the English use of the word, but I was wrong. It turns out that it comes from the French general Jean Martinet, who beat Louis XIV’s soldiers into shape with relentless drills and demanded rigid adherence to the rules. He became a much-loathed figure who was killed when his own troops "accidentally" shot him as he led a charge (from the excellent anecdotage.com). Hence, nowadays, a martinet is a strict disciplinarian.
I wonder whether he gave his name to the now scarcely used instrument of discipline in French. My dictionary dates the coining of the word at 1743 and the general died in 1672. So I suppose it is possible that a man’s name became a word used in two different languages to describe two different things: an object used for discipline in French and a type of rigid person in English.