12 More Military Terms Used in Civilian Contexts

By Mark Nichol

Following up on a post about words that originally pertained (or in one sense pertain) to military units but have developed nonmilitary connotations based on that sense, here are additional terms referring to military individuals or groups that have civilian senses as well.

1. captain: ultimately from Latin caput (“head”), originally referring to the leader of a war party and later to a military officer in command of a set unit or a ship; later, applied in general to a leader or head of a group or team.

2. cavalry: from Italian cavaliere (“horseman”), a body of soldiers mounted on horses (and later those assigned to mechanized units); by extension, from the cliché in movie westerns of a US cavalry unit coming to the rescue of the protagonists, used in references to one or more people who bring aid to others.

3. lieutenant: from Old French lieu tenant (“in place of”), originally, an officer who was deputy to a captain but later also a specific military rank; in civilian usage, a right-hand man or woman or a subordinate.

4. muster: from Latin monstrare (“to show”)—interestingly, akin to monster—referring to an assembly of military personnel or serving as a verb synonymous with assemble, but also pertains to any assembly, collection, or inventory or to a sample or specimen.

5. picket: from French piquer (“pierce”), a group of soldiers assigned to guard a camp, or the action of doing so; in civilian usage, a distinct meaning of “protesting during a demonstration or strike” or a reference to a sharp stake, such as one that is part of a picket fence.

6. rank-and-file: from Old English ranc (“strong”) and Latin filum (“cord” or “thread), the arrangement of military personnel in rows and columns; by extension, a reference to ordinary employees or members as opposed to those in leadership roles .

7. reserve: from Latin reservare (“keep back”), one or more units of soldiers kept more or less in readiness in case they are needed as reinforcements; in general usage, anything kept in stock or kept apart from a general issue or supply.

8. scout: from Latin auscultare (“heed,” “listen”), a person, sometimes a local civilian—or a group called a scouting party—sent to explore, observe, or search to obtain information about the enemy; in entertainment or sports, someone who observes prospective performers or recruits.

9. sergeant: from Latin serviens (“servant”), originally referred to a servant but later applied to an experienced common soldier who supervised others under command of a nobleman or knight; the term now denotes an experienced soldier or police officer holding the rank of sergeant or (in the military) a variation of the rank such as staff sergeant.

10. task force: from taxare (“tax”), a unit formed temporarily to achieve a specific objective; the sense in civilian usage is the same.

11. troops: from Old French trope (“band,” “company”), also the source of troupe, collectively refers to soldiers (in singular form the name of a specific military unit, not a designation for a single soldier); in general usage, an informal reference to a company’s employees or an organization’s members (as in “Round up the troops for a meeting”).

12. wingman: originally a term for a pilot who supports the leader of a flying formation, now also slang for someone who backs up a person who seeks to approach potential romantic or sexual partners.

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7 Responses to “12 More Military Terms Used in Civilian Contexts”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Thank you, venqax.
    Also, the “Third Reich’s navy”, a.k.a. the “Kriegsmarine” = “War Navy”.
    Later came the “Bundesmarine”, the peaceful navy of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), the “Deutsche Bundesrepublik”. That one started off as the navy of West Germany, and now that East Germany has been reabsorbed into the Bundesrepublik, the Bundesmarine is the navy of all Germany.
    The FRG always claimed that it was the true successor of the Weimar Republic, and that its was the true government of all of Germany. Hence, the government of the DDR (East Germany) was just a bunch of gangsters – like the Mafia, and the government of the FRG was RIGHT about this, too. Honaker, et al, would have been tried, convicted, and imprisoned if he had not soon gotten very sick and died anyway.
    I would have liked to have seen him standing before the High Tribunal of the International Court in The Hague, being accused of high crimes against humanity.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Hi, Anne-Marie: No, not a history teacher, but I have a way of soaking it up from reading and watching TV, and I pay attention to the terminology. I got off to a good start because my Mother was an English teacher, and my father was a college football player who started out majoring in physical education in Memphis, but he took a course or two in European history. He got a professor or two whom he liked so much that he kept on taking courses in European history, more and more, that he ended up with a Double Major in physical education and European history (what a combination!).
    I’ve learned an awful large amount of history from Isaac Asimov, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Tom Clancy, Eisenhower, Francis Crick**, Samuel Eliot Morison, and Carl Sagan.
    I also learned a lot from Dr. W. David Lewis of Auburn University. He held a joint chair in History and Engineering, as did one of his colleagues at Georgia Tech.
    **The author of “The Double Helix”

  • Anne-Marie Shaffer

    Dale,

    Are you a history teacher?

  • venqax

    “…a Grossadmiral is just a very high-ranking admiral, like a four-star admiral in the U.S. Navy.”

    Actually, a grossadmiral in the Third Reich’s navy, usually translated into Englis as “grand admiral”, was the equivalent of a five-star rank (Fleet Admiral in the USN, Admiral of the Fleet in the RN). The ranks of generaladmiral (general admiral) and admiral were considered both equivalent to the four-star rank of admiral in both the US and UK navies.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The term “picket line” was extended to the world of radar, too, both land-based and seaborne. A radar picket line is either a chain of radar stations or radar-equipped ships that has been set up for early-warning against intruders in the air or on the sea. Two well-known radar picket lines were the DEW Line and the Mid-Canada Line. DEW = Distant Early Warning, and the DEW Line extended across northern Alaska, all the way across arctic Canada, and onto Greenland. The mid-Canada Line was its backup line from Pacific Canada all the way to the Baffin Sea of the Atlantic Ocean.
    During WW II in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy set up extended picket lines of radar-equipped destroyers (“picket ships”) for early-warning against Japanese air attacks, especially by kamikazes!
    Then those picket ships became favorite targets of the kamikazes themselves, and one American destroyer endured the crashes of five kamikazes in one day without sinking. This picket ship can be seen as a memorial ship in Baltimore Harbor, along with the old sailing warship, the USS “Constellation”, and several other historic ships, including a World War II submarine.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Note: captain: ultimately from Latin caput (“head”).
    In German, the word for head is “Haupt”, and a “Hauptmann” = “head man” is a captain in the army or the Luftwaffe. On the other hand, a captain in the Bundesmarine (navy), coast guard, or the merchant marine is “Herr Kapitan”, which is probably derived from the Latinate term “captain”.
    Some of the other German ranks are easy: Lieutnant, Major, General, Admiral, and Feld Marschall, but Felbwebel (sergeant) and Oberst (colonel) are unfamiliar to most English speakers.
    “Major” is pronounced differently in German, and it used to be spelled “Maijor”. “General” is also pronounced differently but spelled the same.
    An odd-looking rank that came up in the time of the Nazis was “Generaladmiral”! Also, “gross” means “large” or “great”, so a Grossadmiral is just a very high-ranking admiral, like a four-star admiral in the U.S. Navy. Grossadmiral Doenitz of World War II was well-known: he was the admiral in charge of the Kriegsmarine’s U-boat fleet, and he was also the head of the Third Reich for about seven days after Hitler committed suicide.
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    5. picket: from French piquer (“pierce”), a group of soldiers assigned to guard a camp, or the action of doing so…
    It is interesting that the word “picket” has been generalized to naval and air force affairs, also.
    An extended “picket line” of ships or submarines can be set up to be on guard for enemy ships or submarines, and then attack them when detected. This tactic is especially useful when an island or a harbor is being attacked, and the picket line is set up to attack fleeing ships OR to attack ships on their way to counterattack.
    Before the great Battle of Midway in 1942, the Japanese Navy had planned on setting up a picket line of submarines between Hawaii and Midway Island, with the attention of finding and attacking the American fleet on its way to defend Midway. Unfortunately for the Japanese, Admiral Nimitz in Hawaii had already dispatched a task force of three aircraft carriers and their supporting ships to a position northeast of Midway – before that picket line could be set up.
    In actions of antisubmarine warfare, the U.S. Navy, the Royal Navy, and the Royal Canadian Navy have set up picket lines against German U-boats in various places, and also against Japanese submarines in various parts of the Pacific.
    Such tactics have been useful, also, useful in stopping blockade runners in various places, and especially in stopping blockade runners trying to go back and forth between Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire. The Brazilian Navy became very adept at this at the “narrowest” part of the Atlantic, between Brazil and Africa.
    There had been both surface ships and submarines trying to sneak back and forth between Germany and Japan.
    Patrol planes also set up picket lines across the narrower parts of the seas, especially in antisubmarine warfare. A very important one for decades was the one run by NATO across the GIUK Gap in the North Atlantic. That is the one covering the straits between Greenland, Iceland, and Scotland/Northern Ireland (in the U.K.) , and it also includes the Faeroe Islands of Denmark in between Iceland and Scotland. This line of defense was to obstruct Soviet submarines wanting to go from the Arctic Ocean, the Norwegian Sea, and the Greenland Sea into the open Atlantic south of the GIUP Gap, and thence to attack NATO shipping going back and forth between Europe and North America.
    So, the concept of the “picket line” has been extended to transoceanic and transcontinental uses.
    D.A.W.

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