army ranks

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Wed Mar 29 14:20:53 UTC 2006

For those for whom no knowledge is too much, OED gives the following primary dates for general-officer ranks :

  1514 captain-general

  1576 general

  1579 sergeant-general

  1589 lieutenant-general

  1595 colonel-general

  1633 major-general

  1681 general officer

  1690 brigadier-general

  A "sergeant-general" is now a "sergeant-major," though it was also applied to unspecified senior commanders in some foreign armies.  The chronology shows that I was mistaken in assuming (yeah, I know the folk etymology) that "general" comes from "general officer."

  However, the chronology also suggests that the hierarchy of rank is *not* based on any systematic application of the names of enlisted grades.  "General" appears to have been a nominalization (by clipping) of the postpositive adj. in "captain-general."  A "lieutenant-general" was evidently conceived of as a general's subordinate or lieutenant.  A "colonel-general" was one step lower than a full general, and (logically this time) a "major-general" was a step below the colonel-general.  A "brigadier-general," which OED believes to antedate "brigadier" is a lower-ranked general in command of a brigade.

  So it's all sort of a patchwork.


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