‘Materiel’? Really?

by Julia Robinson

Early this year in a cabinet reshuffle the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard appointed Mike Kelly, the federal member for Eden–Monaro, as the Minister for Defence Materiel. It is a relatively new Ministry, created in 2010, responsible for military equipment and supply. Minister Kelly is in charge of the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO), part of the Department of Defence. The DMO currently lists among its ‘acquisition projects’ such things as armoured vehicles, communications and missile defence systems, aircraft, amphibious vehicles, and helicopters.

Mike Kelly is sworn in as Minister for Defence Materiel, February 2013.

‘Defence Materiel’—really? —asked one of our correspondents. Isn’t this just a pretentious French way to spell material? Well, apparently not, we discovered; it has a particular meaning in a military context.

It is true that it derives from the French word matériel, which means the same as the English word material, ‘of or relating to matter or substance; formed or consisting of matter’. However a specific military sense of the word (as in the name of the Ministry, and the DMO) is first recorded in English in 1819. Here is the evidence:

 Every thing relative to the personnel and materiel of the artillery, both in the land and sea service, and all fortifications in England, depend on one branch of the war department. (W. T. W. Tone, Essay on the Necessity of Improving Our National Forces, 1819)

This shows us that materiel has been used in British English in a military sense for nearly two hundred years. So it is hardly a newcomer; it just seems that way to the average Australian taxpayer because, before the creation of the Ministry for Defence Materiel, most of us had never heard the term. After all, previous ministries responsible for defence equipment and supply had names such as the Ministry for Supply and Development, Ministry for Supply and Shipping, Ministry for Defence Support, and Ministry for Defence Science and Personnel. The word materiel was officially (but quietly) introduced in 2009 with the title ‘Ministry for Defence Personnel, Materiel and Science’, before the ministry was split in two in 2010.

Some of us may have seen materiel used in newspaper reports, such as this one, and assumed it was a typo:

Shipyards in Adelaide and Melbourne will get the bulk of the new navy work, saving thousands of jobs at Port Adelaide and Williamstown shipyards. The government won’t build a new navy base in Brisbane but will upgrade Garden Island in Sydney to house new materiel. (Brisbane Courier-Mail, 4 May 2013)

But materiel has been in our dictionaries for a long time, well-known in defence circles and waiting to be noticed by the rest of us. The Australian Oxford Dictionary currently defines it as:  ‘available means, especially materials and equipment in warfare (as opposed to ‘personnel’)’. Unlike the word material (muh-TEER-ree-uhl), it is pronounced with the primary stress on the last syllable (muh-teer-ree-EL). If you listen carefully to news reports you may notice that some newsreaders are not yet entirely comfortable with this pronunciation.

Usually in English (as in the 19th-century quotation above) materiel is spelt without the acute accent that occurs in the French form of the word (matériel). Certainly in Australian use today the accent is rarely seen; the average taxpayer might well regard it as pretentious.


2 thoughts on “‘Materiel’? Really?

  1. Apparently the word is better known in American English. Merriam-Webster Online defines it as “equipment, apparatus, and supplies used by an organization or institution”, without reference to the military, though the example given is “the army is running short of clothing and other matériel”. Note the accent.

  2. I am surprised that you see this as “new” in the general context of Defence in Australia. I am certain that it isn’t and I have heard it consistently throughout my adult life in Australia. That newsreaders are having difficulty with it now is more a reflection of the state of broadcast journalism in this country, which frequently makes me cringe, as many broadcast journalists haven’t the first notion of pronunciation, it seems.

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