7 Military Ranks Common in Popular Culture

By Mark Nichol

1. Captain

This all-purpose title, originally identifying the leader of any band of warriors but later formalized to refer to someone holding a specific military rank, is used in civilian contexts to refer to a sports team’s most prominent member, a successful businessperson (“captain of industry”), or any leader.

The rank originated with land-based forces but was carried over in naval contexts when military leaders took nominal command of ships for naval operations or ferrying of troops from one place to another, though the master of the ship — the owner or owner’s representative, who unlike the captain had nautical skills — actually supervised the ship’s operations. Now, any boat owner or operator is called a captain, and the commander of a naval vessel is referred to as the captain (or, less formally, the skipper) regardless of actual rank.

2. Colonel

Was Colonel Sanders, founder of the fast-food chain KFC, a military veteran? He did serve briefly in the US Army, but as a lowly private. So, where did he get his title? From the Commonwealth of Kentucky, it turns out; the Bluegrass State awards the honorific “Kentucky colonel” to selected individuals who in some way contribute to the state’s well-being.

But why “Kentucky colonel”? After the Revolutionary War, aristocratic landowners who had been commissioned as colonels in the Continental Army and authorized to form regiments were thereafter referred to as “Colonel” to honor their participation in that glorious conflict. Because such men were community leaders, by extension, the honorific, and in Kentucky the more specific phrase, was later bestowed on wealthy gentlemen in general, whether they had actually held a colonel’s commission or not.

This tradition intensified after the American Civil War, when, as before, it was a point of honor to be able to identify oneself as a veteran — especially one who had been a senior officer. The title became a routine honorific for wealthy Southern men, even those born in succeeding generations. Colonel Sanders, though of humble origins, adopted this persona after the governor of Kentucky awarded him the title. (A similar, tongue-in-cheek designation is “Nebraska admiral” — a jocular nod to the fact that the Cornhusker State is landlocked.)

3. Drill Sergeant

Noncommissioned officers assigned to train recruits, depending on the particular branch of the military in which they serve, have different designations, but this title, for US Army trainers, is the one most familiar to civilians, and it is often used in nonmilitary contexts to denote a harsh taskmaster.

This characterization comes from the formidable personalities drill sergeants and their ilk display, because their job is to break their recruits so that their individuality is subsumed to develop unquestioning obedience and unit cohesion, two necessities for group survival in combat.

4. Ensign

Originally, ensign referred to a flag, and sometimes the rank of the junior officer assigned to carry a military unit’s flag in battle was given the same name. By extension, though ensign is no longer a rank in land-based military forces, it became the entry-level officer rank in navies, though that officer’s duties have nothing to do with flags.

5. Lieutenant

This term, from the French words meaning “in place of,” originally referred to the deputy of a military leader and later came to be formalized as a military rank (with variations). Like captain, it was then extended into nonmilitary contexts to refer to any immediate subordinate. A similar word is subaltern, an obsolete junior rank corresponding to a lieutenant; the term, though rare, has the same nonmilitary connotation.

6. Major

Why is the leader of a marching band called a drum major? Such ensembles are descended in concept from military marching bands, which evolved from the use of bugles, fifes, and drums to sound signals to military units because shouted orders, hand gestures, signal flags, and other forms of communication might be difficult to hear or see in the noise and confusion of battle.

Civilian marching bands, whose uniforms are a carryover from military dress, originally were primarily seen in parades, but performances at sporting events, stand-alone events, and band competitions began to predominate.

The title of drum major — an appointment, not a rank in the military hierarchy — carried over to civilian usage; as with military ensembles, the person in that position, who may serve as a conductor, a marching coordinator, or both, wears a distinctive uniform to be easily recognizable.

7. Marshal

This word sometimes used in place of or in addition to general in the military hierarchies of some countries, referring to a very high-ranking officer, has lowly origins: It is from a Germanic term meaning “stable boy” or “stable servant.” (The first syllable is a cognate with mare, meaning “female horse”). In medieval society, the humble stable keeper’s status steadily rose until the title referred to the commander of a feudal lord’s cavalry.

Ultimately, the term “field marshal” referred to the leader of an army or a large division of it. The law enforcement term derived from association with a military marshal’s role in keeping the peace, and the use of “grand marshal” to designate an honorary parade leader stems from the military officer’s duties in ceremonial traditions.

(Similarly, constable, which developed from a Latin term meaning “count of the stable,” was used throughout history from the later days of the Eastern Roman Empire as a title for various high-ranking officials, but constable now usually refers to a low rank in law enforcement.)

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5 Responses to “7 Military Ranks Common in Popular Culture”

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Thanks for the reminder. I have a book that has all these military terms I said I would read though. Always enjoy the words adopted by modern society and used in everyday lingo. It is a testament to how powerful the English language is.

    Thanks for sharing this with us!

  • R. E. Hunter

    Thanks, that was very interesting. I’ve always enjoyed learning the etymology of words, and seeing how their meaning has evolved over time.

  • Ed Buckner

    I have also heard the term Colonel used as a title for an autioneer.

  • John

    What about ‘chief’? In the navy, we have Chief, Senior Chief and Master Chief. The air force has a Chief master Sergeant.

    I’ve heard the term mentioned outside of the military. And don’t forget ‘chief cook and bottle washer’! 🙂

    I’m a retired Master Chief (USN).

  • venqax

    Chief as used in popular culture probably doesn’t come from the military rank. And “chief”, by itself, isn’t a military rank, but is always a modifier, like “senior” or “master” or “first class”. But you are right, it can be short or slang for chief petty officer, chief master sergeant in the navy or air force.

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