2

This book specifies the difference as:

martyr for something: smb. who is made to suffer severely for a cause

martyr to something: smb. who is acutely inflicted by something

Oxford dictionary also tells us this:

(martyr to) a constant sufferer from (an ailment):

Other online dictionaries don't seem to explicitly specify a difference, though all example sentences for "martyr to" contain an ailment.

Yet, I've seen the usage "He/She is a martyr to his/her cause/country" a lot. In fact, google gives more hits to the "to" use than the "for" use.

martyr to his cause: 315,000 uses vs. martyr for his cause: 285,000 uses

martyr to his country: 371,000 vs. martyr for his country: 266,000 uses

So is there still a difference between the two in modern/current use? Is this a case of colloquial use being inconsistent with grammatically correct use? Is this a US vs UK issue? Help, please? Surprisingly google is not yielding even a single article discussing this usage.

ETA: Ngram comparisons that have now only increased my confusion. It seems "martyr to cause" is significantly more common is usage than "martyr for cause". Diagrams for Cause and Country

3

There are actually two different meanings and usages of "martyr to".

Being a "martyr for his cause" (or country) is well-understood. It means the person sacrificed themselves for the cause. Being a "martyr to" something generally means that you suffer as a result of something: a "martyr to back pain" means that you suffer extremely from back pain.

The other use of "martyr to", means that his cause (or country) treats him as a martyr. For example "Joan of Arc is a martyr to the French", means the French consider her a martyr. The English, on the other hand, don't, so she is not a martyr to the English. Another example might be "Martin Luther King was a martyr to the American Civil Rights movement". Civil rights proponents considered him a martyr, other people didn't.

The many occurences of "martyr to his cause" and "martyr to his country" are most likely to be usages like that.

1

I don't think that book gives a very helpful example, as the sense of the example sentence is more 'he died, a martyr, for his country', where 'for' belongs to 'to die for', rather than 'a martyr for'.

The phrases I'm familiar with are 'a martyr to', which implies being a passive agent of an active, usually recurrent ailment (eg, 'He's a martyr to his gout'); and 'a martyr of', usually in the construction 'to make a martyr of someone', which implies an active executor, whose action in killing someone, will cause their death to acquire some kind of cultural or symbolic value.

  • In this case, would introducing an adverb and a comma make for a better example sentence? Ex: 'He died bravely, a martyr for his country'. Or would 'a martyr to his country' be a more correct construction? Here, the 'for' doesn't seem to belong to the "die" anymore. In any case, one's country seems to be closer to a cause than to an ailment, to me. – Shisa Feb 18 '14 at 11:54
  • @Shisa I still see 'He died bravely for his country' as fitting my example. I don't think a country can kill someone - political repression can, though, so you could say, 'He died, a martyr to political repression'. Alternatively, from the point of view of liberal activists, 'He died a martyr to the cause', particularly if had been assasinated. Had he voluntarily sought death, you might say, 'He died a martyr for the cause', which brings us back to the 'dying for' construction. – Leon Conrad Feb 18 '14 at 12:49
  • I see the 'martyr to political repression' as fitting the samples given, since 'political repression' is more an ailment (something one can be a victim of) than a cause. But adding "died" to the sentence constructions introduces a complexity/tangent that doesn't answer my original question, just kinda obscures it? Let's forget the "He died a martyr" construction since that can be very sensibly read differently, and talk about the construction I asked about ie. "He was a martyr". Is a construction like 'he was a martyr for his country/religion' grammatical? – Shisa Feb 18 '14 at 13:28
  • @Shisa If you mean that his country(men) considered him to be a martyr, then yes, but you include 'religion' as an option here, And I can't see that working. 'He was a martyr', for me, implies 'He was [considered to be] a martyr'. Your ngram link examples seem to bear out this distinction. – Leon Conrad Feb 18 '14 at 14:57
0

Martyr means witness in Greek, so martyr to should reasonably mean one who suffers for a cause — for example, a martyr to non-violence.

  • Hello, Anselm. Sadly, it is often unsafe to argue how we 'should' use words from how people centuries ago used them. Especially in a different language. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 31 '15 at 14:37

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