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Alternate Terminology: Rank and File

David Flin

Voila, a viola.
Nice article. Of course, it's more complicated than that. The distinction between Corporal and Lance-Corporal, for example.

Just within Sergeant, one can have Colour Sergeant, Sergeant Major, Regimental Sergeant Major, and so on. With the Navy (British version), you've also got positions related to primary job - Cox'n, Bosun, and so on, and it all gets very confusing.
 

Thande

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Nice article. Of course, it's more complicated than that. The distinction between Corporal and Lance-Corporal, for example.

Just within Sergeant, one can have Colour Sergeant, Sergeant Major, Regimental Sergeant Major, and so on. With the Navy (British version), you've also got positions related to primary job - Cox'n, Bosun, and so on, and it all gets very confusing.
To be honest if I've managed to avoid anything factually incorrect I'll consider that a win, given there's a lot of people on here more versed in this subject than I am.
 

Hendryk

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Since I'd long only seen the word in writing, it took me a while to realize that "Colonel" is actually pronounced curnell. Interestingly, the American pronounciation of "Lieutenant" is the more correct one.
 

Ciclavex

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There’s also languages where they use a completely different system, but use a translation convention when translating into English rather than actually translating the ranks. Take the Israel Defense Forces, whose officer ranks are as follows if you translate them directly rather then by convention:

Master-Champion (Lieutenant General)
Champion (Major General)
Subchampion (Brigadier General)
Second Champion (Colonel)
Deputy Champion (Lieutenant Colonel)
Master-Captain (Major)
Captain (Captain)
First Deputy (First Lieutenant)
Second Deputy (Second Lieutenant)

And, of course, “Rav” - meaning Master or Head - almost exclusively means “Rabbi” in European language usage, even in Yiddish, despite its more generic use as here in Hebrew — except it does also mean Rabbi in Hebrew, meaning that someone could accidentally translate those (wrongly) as “Rabbi-Champion” and “Rabbi-Captain”.

The term used which is usually translated as “champion” is used in the Bible to mean both great heroic fighter and “Captain of One Thousand Men”, while the word translated “captain” is also “chief” or “chieftain” - just as captain originally comes from - and has been in some Bible translations rendered “lord”.

And there are a number of other languages that have something like this.
 

Thande

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Published by SLP
There’s also languages where they use a completely different system, but use a translation convention when translating into English rather than actually translating the ranks. Take the Israel Defense Forces, whose officer ranks are as follows if you translate them directly rather then by convention:

Master-Champion (Lieutenant General)
Champion (Major General)
Subchampion (Brigadier General)
Second Champion (Colonel)
Deputy Champion (Lieutenant Colonel)
Master-Captain (Major)
Captain (Captain)
First Deputy (First Lieutenant)
Second Deputy (Second Lieutenant)

And, of course, “Rav” - meaning Master or Head - almost exclusively means “Rabbi” in European language usage, even in Yiddish, despite its more generic use as here in Hebrew — except it does also mean Rabbi in Hebrew, meaning that someone could accidentally translate those (wrongly) as “Rabbi-Champion” and “Rabbi-Captain”.

The term used which is usually translated as “champion” is used in the Bible to mean both great heroic fighter and “Captain of One Thousand Men”, while the word translated “captain” is also “chief” or “chieftain” - just as captain originally comes from - and has been in some Bible translations rendered “lord”.

And there are a number of other languages that have something like this.
Doesn't the Bible (at least the translations I'm aware of) use ranks like "captain of hundreds" vs "captain of thousands" etc.?
 

Ciclavex

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Doesn't the Bible (at least the translations I'm aware of) use ranks like "captain of hundreds" vs "captain of thousands" etc.?
It does, but that is in fact a different word — seren (סרן) is the word used in modern Hebrew, which has that meaning of chieftain/chief/captain, and is used in the Bible with that meaning occasionally, but usually (possibly exclusively, it’s been a while) referring to foreigners. The word used in “captain of hundreds/thousands” is sar (שר) which, despite its similarity in the Roman alphabet, is spelled differently and is not believed to be etymologically related to seren, last I recall. Sar also has the meaning of “prince”, with the implication of nobility in many instances. The messianic title “Prince of Peace” comes from this (שר שלום) word, in addition to the captain of thousands and captain of hundreds.

Also, I should have said — “champion” is often said to metaphorically mean a “captain of thousand” by some interpretations, and sometimes scripture is interpreted so, it has also been said to actually exclusively mean “man worth a thousand in battle” — so, well, champion, and that it is not a metaphorical term for command. This is, as you imagine, disputed — at least in terms of the Bible. My understanding of modern Hebrew usage and understanding is relatively minimal.
 

Coiler

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My possibly unpopular opinion: I don't think using the English rank names is that bad, thinking from the perspective of a reader who'll likely be confused by (to give two examples) "Lineleader" and "Scriviner", but not "Lieutenant" and "Major" to describe the same people at the same level.

That being said, I do love alternative rank names. I had fun coming up with "don't call them a 'general' " titles like "Grand Colonel" and "Corpsmaster".
 

Thande

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My possibly unpopular opinion: I don't think using the English rank names is that bad, thinking from the perspective of a reader who'll likely be confused by (to give two examples) "Lineleader" and "Scriviner", but not "Lieutenant" and "Major" to describe the same people at the same level.
There is always that argument when using alternate terminology, of course, but I think it's sometimes not a conscious choice but writers genuinely thinking that's the only way there is to do ranks.

Disappointing as they are in many ways, the Legends of Dune prequels do at least get some brownie points for an unusual rank structure--everyone has Spanish number titles from Primero for admiral/general through Segundo (captain or colonel, I think), Tercero (commander or senior lieutenant), Cuarto, Quinto and Sexto (ensign).
 
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David Flin

Voila, a viola.
My possibly unpopular opinion: I don't think using the English rank names is that bad, thinking from the perspective of a reader who'll likely be confused by (to give two examples) "Lineleader" and "Scriviner", but not "Lieutenant" and "Major" to describe the same people at the same level.
One has to balance plausibility with confusion for the reader. OTL is inconsistent even within the same Army.

The guy with a rifle and no responsibilities in the British Army/Royal Marines (as chaps who might be engaged in a duffy) might be a:

Private.
Rifleman.
Trooper.
Marine.
Guardsman.

plus possibly other. That's the same rank in the (more or less) same organisation.
 

Ciclavex

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There is always that argument when using alternate terminology, of course, but I think it's sometimes not a conscious choice but writers genuinely thinking that's the only way there is to do ranks.

Disappointing as they are in many ways, the Legends of Dune prequels do at least get some brownie points for an unusual rank structure--everyone has Spanish number titles from Primero for admiral/general through Segundo (captain), Tercero (commander or senior lieutenant), Cuarto, Quinto and Sexto (ensign).
One thing to appreciate in the original series of Star Trek is that while they broadly used the standard U.S. rank structure, so much as could be seen, they did use some outdated ranks that were comprehensible - e.g., Fleet Captain Pike, Commodore Decker - and, well, since it isn’t supposed to really be that far into the future, and in our own timeline, it makes sense for them to use something broadly derived from the United States and NATO.

They were also fairly consistent about not making alien fleets use the same structure - both Klingon and Romulan starship captains held the rank of “Commander”, for example, and their rank structures were different. With the exception of the Cardassians, the sequel and prequel Star Trek series have not been nearly so good about that, and, while they’ll retain consistency with TOS’ Klingons and Romulans, other newly introduced military characters from alien species pretty much to my recollection straight-up follow the NATO rank structure, probably most egregiously the Bajorans, differentiated from Starfleet only by the fact that they used NATO army rather than NATO navy ranks.

Actually, no, Star Trek: Enterprise did use a different rank structure for the Vulcans, but it was a slightly repainted Romulan rank structure, which, while clever worldbuilding-wise, was not particularly creative on their writers’ part.

EDIT: That being said, it’s certainly better to just use a system people will generally grasp quickly than to come up with something creative but incomprehensible; as many bad science fiction and fantasy works will show, it’s not as easy as it seems to come up with something consistent, comprehensible and creative.
 

Thande

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Published by SLP
One thing to appreciate in the original series of Star Trek is that while they broadly used the standard U.S. rank structure, so much as could be seen, they did use some outdated ranks that were comprehensible - e.g., Fleet Captain Pike, Commodore Decker - and, well, since it isn’t supposed to really be that far into the future, and in our own timeline, it makes sense for them to use something broadly derived from the United States and NATO.

They were also fairly consistent about not making alien fleets use the same structure - both Klingon and Romulan starship captains held the rank of “Commander”, for example, and their rank structures were different. With the exception of the Cardassians, the sequel and prequel Star Trek series have not been nearly so good about that, and, while they’ll retain consistency with TOS’ Klingons and Romulans, other newly introduced military characters from alien species pretty much to my recollection straight-up follow the NATO rank structure, probably most egregiously the Bajorans, differentiated from Starfleet only by the fact that they used NATO army rather than NATO navy ranks.

Actually, no, Star Trek: Enterprise did use a different rank structure for the Vulcans, but it was a slightly repainted Romulan rank structure, which, while clever worldbuilding-wise, was not particularly creative on their writers’ part.

EDIT: That being said, it’s certainly better to just use a system people will generally grasp quickly than to come up with something creative but incomprehensible; as many bad science fiction and fantasy works will show, it’s not as easy as it seems to come up with something consistent, comprehensible and creative.
The Romulans in their first appearance introduced the rank of centurion, of course, which ended up being used in a variety of different ways by confused novel writers in the ensuing years.
 

AndyC

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One has to balance plausibility with confusion for the reader. OTL is inconsistent even within the same Army.

The guy with a rifle and no responsibilities in the British Army/Royal Marines (as chaps who might be engaged in a duffy) might be a:

Private.
Rifleman.
Trooper.
Marine.
Guardsman.

plus possibly other. That's the same rank in the (more or less) same organisation.
And, of course, a corporal of horse equates to a sergeant elsewhere, while a sergeant could be subordinate to a staff corporal.
 

Kato

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A really interesting read. Like most specialist fields it all seems much more intuitive when you understand how the terminology developed - in this case with the etymology of the various ranks.

Very well timed too (in terms of publication - though I guess you wrote this some time ago?) I've spent some time time weekend doing early research on a sequel to Freedom's Rampart, and one of the things I'm trying to get nailed down up front is the rank structures - not just for the Royal Navy, but for the Kaiserliche marine, and I imagine eventually all the other Great Powers of the time. I expect that there will need to be diagrams.

This kind of thing can be confusing enough in the present day, for writing AH there's also the complication of various nations changing or reforming their rank structures at various times - none of which is especially obvious at first glance. British navy ranks used to be much more basic, but also split into two branches of officers - those who were responsible for sailing the ship (headed up by the Master), and those who commanded the enlisted men on board in actual combat (the Commander). When these two branches were originally merged you got the now defunct rank of "Master and Commander", which lingered on a while longer as an informal way to refer to a Captain-in-Post (i.e. a ships captain who actually held the rank of Captain, as opposed to a more junior officer with a(n acting) command).

Right now I'm trying to determine exactly how the Royal Navy of the time handled the promotion for Sub-Lieutenant to Lieutenant after the original creation of the former rank (formerly "mate", and before that "master's mate").

Of course, just when you thought you were safe with etymology, there's false friends too! Michman in the Imperial Russian Navy was a commissioned officer rank. In the modern Russian Navy its equivalent to an enlisted (NCO) Warrant Officer. Etymologically it comes from the English Midshipman, which was the most junior Officer rank above Cadet in the Royal Navy.

Pronouncing it coll-oh-nell was one of the linguistic cues used in Allo Allo to indicate when a character is speaking German.
I still to this day read "colonel" this way, and I know this is why.

There's also the odd case of the Indian Army, where the officer ranks are Captain, Major, General, etc, while the non-commissioned ranks are Havildar, Risaldar, Naik, Subedar, etc.
As a complete guess, would this be inherited from the time when the British Indian Army consisted of almost exclusively White British officers, and predominantly local enlisted men? If so it makes sense that both branches keep structures with which each are familiar - especially if in turn the BIA inherited its first enlisted ranks from the local mercenaries hired by the East India Company. Total guess though.

Disappointing as they are in many ways, the Legends of Dune prequels do at least get some brownie points for an unusual rank structure--everyone has Spanish number titles from Primero for admiral/general through Segundo (captain or colonel, I think), Tercero (commander or senior lieutenant), Cuarto, Quinto and Sexto (ensign).
This is actually the first example that came to mind of a sci fi universe that does the alternate terminology for rank (though don't they get reformed in universe in book 2/3 back to the less original titles of the original series?). At the time it lost more than it added for me - I think its hard to do in any fiction that isn't specifically military fiction (be it AH military fiction, SF military fiction, etc.) and which can justify the exposition of explaining how the ranks relate to each other.

I still remember Herbert Jr/Anderson tacking on new Zenshia nomads to explain the Zensunni of the original, but only raising more unanswered questions.
 
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