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Origins of Ranks

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An Occasional Series.

I thought this might be of interest gathered together. Since I have looked it up largely from only two sources ( and Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable), serious scholars are invited to correct errors of omission and commission.

If the sources are correct, Subalterns really aren't going to like it.....

"Why am I a Private? I hear you ask.

Well, the term dates from 1579 and was at that time becoming an acceptable replacement (Political Correctness in the seventeenth century, forsooth!) for the phrase, "Common," i.e. Common Soldier and the associated snobbish overtones inherent in that. Originally Latin privatus meaning set apart, belonging to onself.



Dates from around 1300 and derives from the Old French soudier, "one who serves in the army for pay." This, in turn, comes from Mediaeval Latin, soldarius derived from solidus - a Roman gold coin.


From 1523, "a foot soldier who prepares the way for the army." From Mediaeval French pionnier from Old French paonier, "foot soldier."


From Mediaeval French, saper, from sappe, "spade".


The term, "gunne," appears in 1339 as, "an engine of war that throws rocks, arrows or other missiles. Apparently, and it grieves me to repeat it, it is probably a shortening of the female name, Gunhilda. In Mediaeval English, gonnilde, meant cannon. Then again, in the modern army, it's probably as appropriate as any derivation.


First recorded in 1560. From French, bombarde, a mortar. Also a bassoon-like musical instrument of around 1393.


From 1579. Mediaeval French (you see the theme developing here...) from Italian, capo, chief, head. So called for being in charge of a body of troops.


From around 1200. Means, "servant." From Old French, sergent; from Mediaeval Latin servientum, "servant, vassal, soldier." In the sense of Non Commissioned Officer, first recorded in 1548 but originally had a slightly different conotation (a good example here) to the rank currently pertaining.


French again, lieu="place", tenant="holding", i.e. somebody who acts in the absence of his superior. Literally "placeholder".

Officers: Second Lieutenant | Lieutenant | Captain | Major | Lieutenant Colonel | Colonel | Brigadier | Major-General | Lieutenant-General | General | Field Marshal
Non-commissioned: Private | Lance Corporal | Corporal | Sergeant | Staff Sergeant | Warrant Officer Class 2 | Warrant Officer Class 1