Alternate Terminology: Rank and File

By Tom Anderson



Regardless of one’s nation, the military are generally a good source of unique and often jargonistic terminology understood only partially by civilian outsiders. Beyond the impenetrable acronyms, in-jokes and euphemisms, though, even the more recognisable terms conceal interesting historical secrets, and we can imagine how they would have been different in alternate timelines (ATLs). As always, one easy way we can get inspiration is by looking at terms used in different languages in our timeline (OTL). The most obvious place to start is with the structure of ranks.


Today, military ranks are generally standardised (though used differently in different branches like navy and air force) with NATO using a conversion table to establish seniority between officers from different countries. The cultural predominance of the United States has led to the ranks used in that country being typically the ones recognised through pop culture, and used in speculative senses such as depicting futuristic science-fiction scenarios like Star Trek. This can lead to the American ranks being more recognised by the civilians of a different country than the ones used by their own country, as in the case of British civilians today sometimes pronouncing the word ‘lieutenant’ as the American ‘loo-tenant’ rather than the British ‘leff-tenant’. It also leads to a misconception that these ranks are used universally and they are the only ones that exist, which again leads to something of a sterile homogeneity in the ranks used by many of the science fiction and fantasy writers writing about very different p[laces and times. So let’s look at where these ranks come from and how they differ from country to country.

Modern militaries distinguish between (commissioned) officers and enlisted men, a distinction which originally was more of a class one between aristocrats and commoners (and even to this day, in many armies distinct traces of this remain). Formally the distinction nowadays, however, is that officers are trained in leadership in academies whereas enlisted men typically enter directly from civilian life. We will consider officer ranks first.



Probably the single most recognisable military rank is that of Captain. This is used in all branches of the American and British armed forces, though confusingly equates to a different seniority depending on branch (for example, an army captain usually equates to a naval lieutenant, and a naval captain to an army colonel). The word captain ultimately comes from the Latin caput ‘head’, and eventually became capitaine in French meaning ‘chief’, from which it was brought into English. It is thought to have referred to a leader of a group of men in general before it began applied specifically to a commander of a naval vessel, though the latter is probably now the first sense most people would think of. ‘Captain’, in its local equivalent spellings and forms, is used universally by all NATO countries’ armies with the exception of Turkey, which has its own unique homegrown ranks, and debatably Germany. German does use ‘Kapitän’ in a naval sense, but for the army equivalent prefers ‘Hauptmann’, meaning literally ‘head-man’. Given the etymology of Captain mentioned above, this is really the same meaning from different roots.

In the naval sense, many countries append qualifiers to ‘captain’ because one man (or today woman) can be the commander of a wide variety of ships of different size and importance. English is really the odd one out here in that someone holding the titular rank of Lieutenant or Commander can nonetheless be described, confusingly, as the ‘captain’ if they command their own small ship. More logically, languages like French and German have ranks such as capitaine de frégate / Fregattenkapitän (originally applied to the commander of a frigate, a medium-sized ship) or capitaine de corvette / Korvettenkapitän (for the commander of a corvette, a smaller ship). Larger ships’ captains are dubbed capitaine de vaisseau (‘captain of vessel’) in French and Kapitän zur See (‘captain at sea’) in German. These are just two examples, of course, with many more variations in different languages. Portuguese captains of large vessels, for example, are dubbed capitão de mar e guerra (‘captain of sea and war’), and Spanish ones as capitán de navio (literally just ‘captain of ship’, but originally specifically referring to ships of the line—more on them in another article).


Another very common rank is lieutenant, from the French lieu (as in ‘in lieu of’) and tenant (as in, well, tenant), the whole meaning ‘standing in place (for the captain)’. During a brief period of linguistic cold-war paranoia between Britain and France in the 18th century, there was a brief movement to try to remove French words from the English language, and one suggested rebrand was for the English equivalent ‘steadholder’ to replace Lieutenant. This never caught on, and ‘Lieutenant’, with minor spelling variations (leyrtenant, luitenant, løytnant, etc. is used universally by almost all NATO countries (and many others, such as Russia). Gradations within lieutenant are applied in many countries; the USA has ‘lieutenant junior grade’ and Britain has ‘second lieutenant’, while the Dutch have three classes of lieutenant, the highest one being equivalent to lieutenant-commander in the Anglophone powers. The term ‘lieutenant’ is also confusingly used as a modifier to signify a junior position within more exalted ranks, as in ‘Lieutenant General’ or ‘Lieutenant Colonel’. The Dutch even have a ‘Luitenant-Admiraal’ rank, while the Germans put the modifier after the main rank rather than before, as in Generalleutnant. Major is also used as both its own (army) rank and a modifier of ‘general’; unusually, this term is believed to have migrated from the enlisted ranks (sergeant-major) into the commissioned officers.

Colonel is generally an army-only rank (taking in marines and air force if they have modelled their ranks on the army) and is a corruption of ‘column leader’, describing the historical role of such an officer. General is a contraction of the 1500s term captain general, with ‘general’ being a modifier implying a wider field of authority than a captain of a small squad. German in particular tends to combine these ranks in different ways to English-speaking countries, with combinations like ‘colonel general’ or ‘general-major’ being possible.



Admiral is thought to have entered the English language from the Arabic amir al-bahr ‘commander of the sea’, and indeed in French the word is Amiral with no D. Admirals today have several sub-categories, stemming from the historical use of the term to describe the commanders of different parts of the fleet as it went into battle: the senior admiral would be in the centre, his deputy (vice) in the vanguard (front), and the third most senior officer would command the rear. From this came the full admiral, vice-admiral and rear admiral (or counter-admiral in some European languages). Some rank structures also have a rank between captain and the lowest grade of admiral which is called ‘commodore’ (or ‘flotilla admiral’ in German), but the US Navy has simply split the ‘rear admiral’ rank into two categories instead.

Sergeant of the French Royal Artillery 1700-1720

Enlisted ranks also have a venerable history behind them. Sergeant derives from a mediaeval Anglo-French word meaning ‘servant’, with a knight typically assisted by a group of fighting servants referred to as ‘sergeants-at-arms’. The rank evolved into the senior noncommissioned officer, usually responsible for the men of a squad and taking orders from (and, stereotypically, terrifying) a young lieutenant. Sergeants are associated with a rank insignia of three chevrons (two for a corporal and one for a private) although exactly when this was introduced seems unclear and much debated. Sergeants-major are (typically) the most senior noncommissioned officer in a battalion; as noted above, ‘major’ later also migrated to the officer ranks. The term ‘sergeant’, with local spellings has become almost universal in most militaries (as well as many non-military organisations such as police), but there are exceptions. In Arabic-language armies, the rank of raqeeb or ‘overseer’ is often substituted. German is also an exception, with a completely different set of terms derived from Gefreiter (‘freed up [soldiers]’, as in, not on sentry duty). Modifiers such as ‘ober’ (upper) or ‘stabs’ (staff) are then added to the term to create ranks loosely equivalent to sergeant and corporal, but the Bundeswehr has more subdivisions between these than in the US or British Armies.

The rank of corporal is used differently in different countries, on the other hand. In the British Army it means one rank below sergeant and senior to private, but in many other countries it is considered equivalent to, or even junior to, private. Some countries also do not use the term at all, preferring terms like ‘junior sergeant’ or ‘private first class’. In Britain’s Royal Artillery, the word ‘bombardier’ is used rather than corporal (and similarly ‘gunner’ instead of private).


The use of ranks in air forces is worth an article in itself, with much turning on the historical happenstance of whether the early air forces chose to use army-derived or navy-derived ranks. This could easily have gone differently, and there were also proposals to invent brand new ranks for the new services in some countries, notably in the UK where the Irish-derived new rank ‘Ardian’ was proposed. It is interesting to speculate on whether the same debate will take place in the future as and when specifically space-based military organisations are set up, as has been discussed much of late. Regardless, if you’re writing an alternate history, science fiction or fantasy novel, don’t assume that the US or British way to organise ranks is the only way to do it!


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