The rank you hold

The origins of rank names

U.S. soldiers making their way inland from the Normandy beaches
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Have you ever wondered where military rank names come from? (Or, perhaps, do you already know them all?) What is so private about a private? Why are some landlubbers called "captains" even though they don't command a ship? And if "major" is a higher rank than "lieutenant," then why does a lieutenant general outrank a major general?

This article is first posted a day after July 4, when we celebrate the birth of the United States. We'll celebrate the occasion by looking a bit past our usual set of World War II topics and tackle something a bit larger: the origins of rank names in English. We'll concentrate on ranks in the U.S. Army as they existed around World War II, but we'll also include a few others to round out the picture.

Let's start with the lowest rank, private. The word, like most English rank names, ultimately goes back to Latin roots: privus ("single individual"), privare ("deprive," c.f. modern English "privation"), privatus (a person withdrawn from public life). In Middle Ages Europe, most people were part of the feudal system and served in an army not because they wanted to, but because their lord called them up. This started to change with the establishment of for-profit mercenary companies, which were private enterprises, meaning they operated outside the feudal vassalage system. A private was a man who signed a private contract to serve.

The mother of U.S. Army Private John W. O’Daniel pinning the jump pins on his son’s uniform
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

Historically, privates were not always the lowest-ranking people. In 17th century England, a private was a gentleman of "private means," meaning he had his own money, and therefore bought his equipment and supplies rather than having it assigned to him. He was not a proper officer since he did not have a commission, but he was nevertheless exempt from certain fatiguing details, and ate with the officers. In exchange, they were expected to volunteer for hazardous duty, such as "forlorn hope" attacks, being in the front when breaching enemy defenses. If a private acquitted himself well in such dangerous assignments, he could get a commission.

English statesman and general Oliver Cromwell leading a charge in 1649 in the sort of action that could get 17th century English privates a commission
(Image: W. R. S. Stott)

You might reasonably guess that corporal is derived from corpus, the Latin word for "body," which also gave us "corporeal (bodily) punishment." Well, it is related to the word, but in a roundabout way, and it's also related to Latin caput, "head," which is what capital city (the "head city" of a country) and capital punishment (beheading) are also derived from. The medieval Italian phrase capo corporale literally means "head of a body," but referred not to the human body, but to a "body of soldiers," meaning a group. This was eventually shortened to caporale, which was adopted by the French, and later the English to describe a non-commissioned officer in charge of a small group.

U.S. Army Corporal Desmond Doss, who famously refused to carry a weapon due to his religious beliefs during World War II, receiving the Medal of Honor from President Truman
(Photo: U.S. government)

The etymology of lance corporal, below a corporal, is somewhat uncertain, but it clearly refers to the lance, the distinctive polearm used by medieval knights in devastating charges. It's speculated that it refers to the Italian phrase lancia spezzata, "broken lance," meaning a soldier who has already seen battle and has broken his lance or spear before. Alternatively, it might derive from French lance fournie, "furnished lance," which was a synecdoche: a rhetorical device where the name for a part (the knight's weapon) stands for the whole concept, the small (5-10 men) group that the knight was leading.

Sergeant comes from Latin serviens, "servant," and the word has many historical meanings. In Medieval England, serjeanty meant a form of land tenure where the tenant could live on and use the land in exchange for some sort of special duty other than knightly service, rendered either to a local lord or the king. Petit (small) serjeanty could be something as humble as being a cook or baker and holding land in exchange for that service. Grand (large) serjeanty, on the other hand, always involved military service of some sort, which meant that the latter kind of serjeant had a certain amount of professional military skill and better equipment than a rank-and-file soldier. (In fact, a captured serjeant could be ransomed back for half as much money as a knight.) A sergeant, to use the modern spelling, could be a heavy or light cavalryman, or professional heavy infantry: either a spearman or crossbowman. Many notable mercenary companies heavily relied on sergeants.

A medieval Knight Templar (left) with his sergeant
(Image: The Art of War / Facebook)

The phrase sergeant-at-arms, meaning a servant who carries weapons, survives to this day referring to a non-military officer in a legislative body who keeps order during meetings and removes disruptive participants. A related phrase, "serjeant-at-law," used to refer to a historically important order of lawyers in Britain.

Sergeant major doesn't need much explanation, as "major" comes from Latin magnus and later French majeur, meaning "large, major." Predictably, the sergeant major is in command of other sergeants. In 16th century Spain, the sargento mayor was actually a general officer, something like a modern chief of staff, who was the third highest ranking man in an army. In the 17th century, each regiment in the army got its own sergeant major, doing essentially the same job on a smaller scale. The old position remained, but was renamed "sergeant major general" to distinguish it from the lesser ones. The word "sergeant" was emitted from both ranks over time, leading to major and major general, which are still in use today. The full name "sergeant major" then made a return in the 18th century as the title for the senior non-commissioned officer in an infantry battalion or cavalry regiment, and is the ancestor of the modern rank.

17th century Spanish Sergeant Major Juan Bazo de Moreda
(Painting: Francisco de Zubarán)

We'll skip one commissioned officer rank for now, and go directly to captain, because understanding the rank of captain is prerequisite to understanding what a lieutenant does. "Captain" comes from the same Latin caput, "head," as the first half of capo corporale. Many languages draw a connection between "head" and "chief": the head of a family is the chief of the family, and, in fact, the English word "chief" also comes from Latin "caput."

Unsurprisingly, an (Army) captain is the head, or chief, of a company of soldiers (including in the modern military sense of "company." Historically the term has also been used to describe ancient tribal chieftains, who had their own body of armed bondsmen. 

British Army Captain Thomas Hewitt in 1781
(Painting: William Tate)

Army and Marine captains, however, are not to be confused with Navy captains, since the latter is three ranks higher. Original naval usage only referred to Ship-of-the-line captains, the commanders of the largest and heaviest-armed vessels in the era sailing ships. Less senior officers were referred to as frigate captains and corvette captains, depending on what class of ship they could command. In U.S. Navy use, the latter two are today known as commander and lieutenant commander, while captain with no qualifiers refers to what used to be the highest captain rank, equivalent to an Army colonel. We'll also add that the captain rank of the U.S. Air Force is equivalent to an Army captain, but group captain, a rank used in the air forces of British Commonwealth countries, follows the naval naming tradition, and is therefore equivalent to a U.S. Air Force colonel.

Not to be confused with Army captains: Captain Cadwalader Ringgold of the U.S. Navy during the American Civil War
(Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Now that we have established what a captain is, we can go back to lieutenant. It's the combination of two French words, each of which also exists in English. Lieu means "place," and exists in the phrase "in lieu of," "in someone else's place." "Tenant" means someone who lives in a place not owned by them, that is, someone who holds that place, and is also echoed in "maintain," originally "to hold in the hand," and "sustain."

British Marine Lieutenant George Dyer in 1780
(Painting: James Northcote)

Therefore, a lieutenant is someone who holds someone else's place, a deputy. More specifically, he holds the captain's place whenever the latter is away, wounded, or otherwise unavailable. As army ranks gradually became more and more formalized, the lieutenant became the commander of a platoon, one level of organization below the captain's company. The meaning of "placeholder" also explains the rank of lieutenant colonel (the officer one rank below the colonel), and lieutenant general, but more on that later.

Major, as already discussed, was originally a sergeant major, the third highest ranking officer in the Spanish army, then was kicked down to a regimental level and shortened in name.

You might have already guessed that colonel is related to the word "column." That's fundamentally correct, though with a bit of a twist thanks to the British. As armies became bigger, over time, there was a need for a unit comprising multiple companies, but still smaller than the entire army. At around 1500 A.D., the Spanish began organizing these units, which they called colunela, or column, and each of which held about 1,000-1,250 men, the ancestor of the modern regiment. The head of a column was the cabo de colunela, or "head of the column," where our old Latin friend, the word caput makes yet another appearance. In the 16th century, the French adopted the Spanish system and Gallicized the word colunela to colonel.

U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Matt Konop shortly after World War II
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Now, if you have ever talked a British person about military matters, you might have noticed that the British pronunciation of "colonel" is "kernel" with an "r." We don't quite know why it's so, but it probably harkens back to the early Spanish columns. These units were directly under the control of the king, and therefore they were also called coronelas and their commanders coronels to reflect that fact that they were "crown units." It would seem that the British military adopted the French spelling but the Spanish pronunciation, but we don't know why.

British Colonel (pronounced “Kernel”) Leslie Wright

At the top come the general officers. They're often lumped together in everyday English, but they are actually discreet ranks. The first generals appeared in the 17th century with the rise of modern professional armies. The full name of the rank was captain general, that is, the captain, the head, of the army in general. (Just like how the attorney general, the surgeon general and the postmaster general are the heads of the law enforcement, public health and postal systems of the nation.) This rank was later shortened to simply "general” in many countries, sometimes called "full general," and is a four-star rank.

King Felipe VI of Spain, who holds the rank Captain General in the Spanish Army
(Photo: NATO)

The three-star general rank is the lieutenant general as already mentioned earlier, a lieutenant was originally the deputy of a captain, so it made sense to expand the notion to have the lieutenant general be one level below the captain general. The major general, as explained above, was originally called sergeant major, then sergeant major general, and then was simply shortened.

The lowest, one-star general rank is the brigadier general, simply called brigadier in some countries. It literally means the general of a brigade, but then what does a "brigade" mean? The word comes from Italian brigare, "to contend or fight," and related to modern English "brigand." The exact meaning of the word as a unit designation meant a variety of things over history. In modern U.S. Army usage, a brigade is smaller than a division, and is roughly equal to or larger than a regiment. Its most current incarnation, the brigade combat team, is the basic deployable unit of maneuver in the Army: it consists of a maneuver brigade and its support and fire (artillery and aerial fire support) units. And, confusingly, it's more often commanded by a colonel than a brigadier general.

British Brigadier General Ernest Maconchy circa 1918
(Photo: National Army Museum)

While this article concentrates on U.S. Army ranks, here are a few others of interest:

The field marshal is the name in many nations' armies for what the U.S. calls the "general of the army," the five-star general rank. It is the highest rank in many countries (except those who also have Generalissimo or the American General of the Armies), and yet, it has seemingly lowly origins. The Old German phrase marh-scalc literally means "horse servant," and was the title of the keeper of horses of the early Frankish kings. Since cavalry was vital in medieval European warfare and associated with the nobility, the position came to encompass a command position. The marshal also became responsible for keeping order at court and in a military camp, and for deciding matters of chivalry.

German Maréchal de Camp Karl Christian Wilhelm von Closen-Heidenburg, 1762
(Painting: Johann Heinrich Tischbein)

We'll briefly sail to the waters of naval ranks. You might have noticed that most English rank names can be traced back to Latin roots. Admiral, though it did exist in Medieval Latin as admirallus, actually has a different root: Arabic. Amīr or emir means "commander, prince, nobleman, lord or person who commands or rules over a number of people," Modern Arabic also renders admiral as Amīr al-Baḥr , where al-Baḥr means "the sea," for "commander of the sea."

Hayreddin Barbarossa, an admiral in the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century
(Painting: unknown Italian master)

Warrant officers serve in all branches of the U.S. military except the Space Force, but the concept of the warrant officer actually originates from the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy was established in 1546, and its first officers, captains and lieutenants in rank, were noblemen who already had military experience. These men, however, rarely knew anything about shipboard life and lacked any specialist skills such as navigation, the use sails or operating cannons. They had to rely on the seamen for technical skills. Those specialists whose authority and skills required formal recognition were given a warrant rather than a commission, and became known as warrant officers.

A Royal Navy boatswain in the early 19th century, an example of a warrant officer
(Image: unknown artist)

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