A question has arisen regarding the spelling of this term, initiated by tweeting the entry for 26 November 1918 in the diary of Rifleman Frederick Walker, Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.
His spelling is at odds with that in the Field Service Pocket Book (1914, edn of March 1916), which uses ‘piquet’, as does the 1916 reprint of the 1914 Infantry Training (see below), while the US publications The Soldier’s Service Dictionary of English and French Terms (1917) and Farrow’s A Dictionary of Military Terms (1918) give ‘picket’, translated into French in the first of these as ‘piquet’.
A few examples of pre-war, wartime and post-war texts, showing the general use of ‘piquet’:
There was a platoon and a half to go away to some place two miles to the south and piquet a road. Denis Oliver Barnett – in happy memory his letters from France and Flanders, October 1914-August 1915 – D. O. Barnett (1915)
My belief is that the enemy will content themselves with placing a piquet on each of the two roads which run through their position. The first hundred thousand, being the unofficial chronicle of a unit of K (1) – I. Hay (1916)
And everyone enjoyed himself until the piquet came. Buddy’s blighty, and other verses from the trenches (c1918)
In the first instance he was in charge of a company ordered to establish a piquet in a position which was much exposed and commanded by fire. He set a fine example in beating off attacks and in attempting to establish the piquet. Artists’ Rifles War Record (1922)
A frequently expected spelling is ‘picket’, as in:
One midshipman, whose picket boat was blown to pieces under him in the Straits was asked by a foolish journalist in Malta to “give a young officer’s impressions of his experience” The Scotsman 1915
The OED carries a citation for ‘picket’ in ‘picket boat’ from 1861, which is the date also of the earliest citation using this spelling for a military body of men on sentry or scouting duty. Previously the spelling is ‘piquet’, and there is a note stating ‘In the British Army Regulations spelt piquet’. There is also a citation for ‘picquet’ from the British Army Regulations, 1955.
‘Picquet’ and ‘picket’ seem to be the selected spellings for the punishment stake, where the offender has to stand on one leg atop a picket/picquet. Where the spelling ‘picquet’ comes from, goodness knows; the OED dating of spellings gives it from the 16th century through to the 17th. There is no ‘c’ in the French, and analogous spelling models are unhelpful – the OED gives the ‘rare’ ‘picqueter’, an arranger of artificial flowers, from the French, which in French does not have a ‘c’.
The Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales offers two old spellings, the first presumably from the Dictionnaire de L’Académie française:
Ac. 1718: picquet; dep. [depuis? ‘since’] 1740: piquet.
Étymol. et Hist.1. 1380 «bâton pointu, pieu» pichet (A.N. MM 30, fo172 vods Gdf. Compl.)
And the first edition of the Dictionnaire de L’Académie française, from 1694, has
s. m. Certain jeu de cartes assez connu. Joüer au picquet. joüer un cent de picquet.
Possibly the insertion of a ‘c’ happened in the environment of France, as a nod to expected, if uninformed, French spelling. Nearby there are Frencq, Cucq and Bréxent-Énocq, but also Le Touquet. But the spelling ‘picquet’ appears also in the diary of Pte James Jones of the 1st Royal Irish Regiment, on 30 May 1917; at the time he was stationed in Salonica.