15 common military terms and their origins and meanings

Did you know that ‘host’ and ‘hostile’ have the same derivation? Check out how such terms as ‘corps,’ ‘platoon,’ ‘detail’ and ‘echelon’ came into being—and infiltrated the vernacular.

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English includes words that, originating in the vocabulary of warfare, have been applied to competitive contexts such as sports and business; others that did not originate in that realm are associated with both the military and other endeavors.

Here’s a list of terms pertaining to military units and formations that also have other, sometimes derivative, usages:

1. Army. Derived from medieval Latin armata (“army”)—also the source of the Spanish term armada, meaning “war fleet”—referring to a nation’s entire body of land forces or to one major unit of that body.

2. Brigade. Derived from Italian briga (“quarrel”), a word for a unit consisting of thousands of soldiers or, by extension, to any large group of people organized according to common belief or toward achievement of a common goal; brigadier is a military rank for someone in command of a brigade, and related words are brigand (originally meaning “soldier” but later denoting a bandit) and brig and brigantine for types of warships during the Age of Sail (the use of the former as prison ships led to brig being applied to military prisons).

3. Corps. Derived from Latin corpus (“body”), a set unit of tens of thousands of soldiers; by extension, also a more or less numerous group of people involved in the same activity, such as the press corps or a corps de ballet, or ballet company.

4. Detail. Derived from Old French detaillier (“cut into pieces”), originally only a reference to a part or facet of something, but it also came to apply to a small group of military personnel assigned a specific task, as well as to the task itself or the action of selecting the group.

5. Division. Derived from Latin dividere (“divide”), a word with numerous senses, including referring to a unit consisting of tens of thousands of soldiers or a unit of aircraft or ships.

6. Echelon. Derived from Late Latin scala (“ladder”) by way of French eschelon (originally “rung of a ladder” but later “grade,” “level,” or step”), adopted into English to refer to a military formation in which units are offset so that from above, they resemble a stairway in profile; the word then came to denote grades or levels of an organization or the people at one of those grades or levels.

7. Fleet. Derived from Old English fleotan (“float”), a set unit of military naval vessels or the entirety of such vessels belonging to a navy or to a company; by extension, now also applied to collections of vehicles, such as a group of cars owned by a company or a government agency and available for employees’ use.

8. Flotilla. Derived from Spanish (“little fleet”), a set unit of small warships; by extension, a large number of like things.

9. Host. Derived from Latin hostis (“enemy” or “stranger”), which is also the source of hostile, with multiple meanings, including a large army or a multitude of indeterminate size.

10. Legion. Derived from Latin legere (“gather”), originally a Roman military unit equivalent to a modern brigade; now, vaguely describes a multitude.

11. Phalanx. Derived from Greek (“log”), originally referring to a closely arrayed military formation but now denoting a mass of people, animals, or things; also refers to bones of a hand or foot.

12. Platoon. Derived from French pelaton (“little ball”), originally referring only to a set unit of about several dozen soldiers and by extension coming to mean a squad of athletes with a common function (such as offensive and defensive teams in football) or any group of people with a common characteristic or goal.

13. Regiment. Derived ultimately from Latin regere (“lead straight” or “rule”), regimen was adopted into English to refer primarily to a fitness or health plan, but its cognate regiment refers to a military unit of about a thousand or more soldiers; to regiment is to control strictly.

14. Squad . Derived ultimately from Vulgar Latin exquadrare (“make square”) by way of Middle French esquade, initially denoting a set unit of about a dozen soldiers but later also referring in general to a small group engaged in an activity (see also squadron).

15. Squadron. Derived from Italian squadrone (“squad”), cognate with squad, refers to any one of several types of military units depending on the branch of service (it can apply to soldiers, aircraft, or ships), and by extension a large group of people or things involved in a particular endeavor.

A version of this post first appeared on Daily Writing Tips.


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