Thursday, April 30, 2009

Etymology of Military Ranks

As the ranks are from the French, reversing the order of the adjective and noun can often give a clearer English meaning. A General officer is one who is in charge of a wide variety of units, rather than a single unit (cf Attorney General). That is more its history than its use now.

Private – private = individual/separate soldier, not in charge of anyone else.

Corporal – as in, “body.” The head of a less-formal body of soldiers, such as a fireteam. Corps, meaning the whole body of soldiers is of similar derivation.

Sergeant – related to “servant,” used in the sense of one who carries out the orders of higher officials. This would make sense in a military context, as it is the NCO’s who make sure that the orders of officers get carried out. Sergeant-mojor is of course a major sergeant.

Lieutenant – think “in lieu of.” One who stands in the place (tenancy) of another – a representative. In the military, it means “next in rank,” as lieutenant colonel.

Captain, as in cap = head. The head of a company.

Colonel - the head of a column of soldiers, a regiment.

Fireteam 4
Squad 13 (8-14)
Platoon 40+
Company approx 200
Battalion 500-1500
Regiment – four battalions (4,000)
Division 10-20,000
Expeditionary Force 60K+
Corps – currently 200K USMC


Unknown said...

This is an interesting subject.

I've always thought of "Private" in the context of the US's history of having an army composed of citizen soldiers: private = private citizen, as opposed to career military.

Also odd that a Major ranks a Lieutenant, but a Lieutenant General ranks a Major General.

lelia said...


cold pizza said...

Try: Field Grade: Captain, Lieutenant, Sergeant. Company Grade: Colonel, Major, Sergeant Major. Flag Grade: General, Lieutenant General, Sergeant-Major General (shortened to Major General).

Thank you, Napoleon.

BTW, that was one of the mil-history questions I used to ask my ROTC cadets back when I was a cadre member (if a Major outranks a Lt, why does a Lt Gen outrank a MajGen?) -cp

mythusmage said...


Originally the ranks were Sergeant Major General and Lieutenant Colonel General. A one time rank was Captain General. Given time and the opportunity things do tend to become simpler after a period of complication. As witness automobiles, airplanes, and English grammar

Anonymous said...

A drum major was also a military rank or position long ago. If major is an adjective as it is in sergeant major or sergeants major, that would leave the plural of drum major to be drums major which makes no sense. I believe the word major in these cases means "leader" in a broad sense instead of the "commissioned officer" sense. Also, with master, staff and first sergeant the adjective always comes first. Why should it suddenly come second in the case of sergeant major.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You could look it up.

Also, once a phrase has been imported into English, subsequent changes follow English rules, rather than the grammar of its original language. This has created some oddities in Greek or Latin phrases which came into English centuries ago.