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The Grand Colonel Effect: One Author's Rules for Alternate Names

By Colin Salt.

Brigadier General Norvell Coots, commander Regional Health Command Europe. Potentially a Grand Colonel.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The military rank of “Grand Colonel” does not exist in real life. There are several ranks, most in East Asia, that translate to “Senior Colonel” in terms of hierarchy. Now the naming of and reasons for naming various military ranks are so complicated and convoluted that I could probably write an entire 100k+ word book on them just for one language, to say nothing of any others. But I want to talk about “Grand Colonel” as I used it in an idle worldbuilding project that I may or may not develop further.


Anyway, in that project Grand Colonel is simply the equivalent of a one-star general. Which itself has a variety of responsibilities and titles depending on context. In American tradition they’re “Brigadier Generals” and mainly serve as divisional deputies; in Russia’s tradition they’re “Major Generals” and are tasked with commanding divisions at paper strength. But I digress again. The reason for me using the rank “Grand Colonel” is that the army in question hated the word “General” and wanted to name their comparative ranks something else. So, a brigadier-major general became a “Grand Colonel”, a lieutenant general became a “Corpsmaster”, and a four-star/supreme general became a “Torchbearer”.

Brigadier Julian Thompson, 1982.

Picture courtesy Julian Thompson.

Now there also is precedent, albeit a morally dubious one, for such a rank. The interwar USSR, eager to throw off the czarist ranks, adopted a simple series above colonel that translated to “Commander of [Unit]”, ie Kombrig, Komdiv, Komandarm. The Waffen-SS did something similar, with ranks that translated to “[Unit] Leader”. As this army was of less-than-ideal revolutionary origin, I felt the similarities were fitting. So far, so good.


Which brings me to the main point. Not whether it’s plausible in-setting, but to what degree you should use alternate terminology instead of historical ones, even if it doesn’t make sense. There’s obviously no one right or wrong answer, but the guideline I use is: “Could a layperson get the meaning of it without knowing anything else/better?”


In this case, Grand Colonel comes across as pretty intuitive. A reader sees a Grand Colonel character, and the words clearly imply ‘better than a colonel, with Grand signifying authority’. Corpsmaster is a little less so because you have to know what a Corps even is, but once you do, it’s clearly ‘Master of a corps’. Torchbearer is the iffiest but is still a good enough supervillain title. All of this is in my eyes, of course.


An example of one of my words from that worldbuilding project that I rejected as not fitting that guideline was “Ouwo”. Coming from a random conlang generator, it means “Army Group” or “Front”, the largest field unit in a military. Since it is just a made up word with no obvious connection, one would have to work extra hard with context to stick it in the minds of the reader and not draw a question mark. This can also apply to historical non-English formations like Maniple [company] or Tumen [division]. To follow that example, I would just use “army group”, which is very understandable. It is, after all, a group of armies.


No-one has to follow this. But it’s what I go by, especially if writing for an audience on non-enthusiasts.


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