As libraries in England prepare to reopen after the lockdown, some are engaging “space marshals”. Interstellar criminals love to read, so a library is a good place to look for them on Earth, but this is not that kind of space.

A “space marshal”, instead, is someone meant to supervise physical distancing. “Marshal” comes from the Old French “mareschal”, originally meaning someone who looked after horses, and then a military commander. In English it came to denote various kinds of official, especially those responsible for prisoners, and hence the American agency known as the US Marshals, one of whom was memorably played by Tommy Lee Jones in the 1998 film of that name.

The verb “to marshal” also means to arrange or organise, so someone in this new job might be said to marshal library-goers at appropriate spatial distances, rather than keeping them prisoner. “Space marshal” might sound exotic or silly, but such a role is likely to become the new normal for indoor spaces. And who could begrudge those who previously laboured under other descriptions – bouncer, doorperson, or just assistant – such a rhetorical upgrade in importance with this glamorous new title?

Steven Poole’s A Word for Every Day of the Year is published by Quercus.

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