The Grammarphobia Blog

Lining up the rank and file

Q: When Pat was asked on WNYC about “rank and file,” she said you had already answered it on your blog. I’ve searched, but can’t find it. I imagine it originated in the military as a term to differentiate officers from other troops.

A: Oops! Pat thought we’d answered a question about this, but she was mistaken. Sorry! We’ll take care of that now.

You’re right that the term “rank and file” originated in the military, though its modern military sense is a bit fuzzy.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) says the expression refers to all enlisted troops (those other than officers and warrant officers).

But The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says it refers to enlisted troops other than noncommissioned officers (enlisted members with leadership authority, like corporals, petty officers, sergeants, etc.).

Why “rank” and why “file”?

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says “rank” refers to troops in line side by side, while “file” refers to troops standing one behind another.

The expression originated in the late 16th century, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED explains that the phrase originally referred to “the formation of rows and columns into which soldiers are drawn up for drill or service.”

The earliest citation is from a book about warfare by Robert Barret, The Theorike and Practike of Moderne Warres (1598): “To learne to keepe his ranke and file orderly.”

The OED’s second citation is from Philip Massinger’s play The Maid of Honour (1632): “See the Souldiers set / In ranke, and file.”

The dictionary agrees with Brewer’s that the phrase combines two terms: “rank,” a single line of soldiers abreast, and “file,” the depth from front to rear of a formation in line.

In the 18th century, the term was first used as a collective noun referring to the soldiers themselves, not just formations of them.

The earliest example of this usage in the OED is from a 1756 citation from George Washington’s writings: “You are to have a Subaltern, two Sergeants, and twenty-five rank and file, at Edward’s Fort unless the inhabitants desire to come down here.”

Washington is apparently using “rank and file” here to include corporals. In fact, a 1796 citation in the OED says “rank and file means … the corporals and private soldiers.”

In the 19th century, according to the OED, the usage was extended to include “the ordinary members of an organization (esp. a political party or trade union), as opposed to its leaders; the ordinary people, the masses.”

The first published reference for this new sense of the phrase is from an 1828 issue of the Delaware Weekly Advertiser and Farmer’s Journal, in Wilmington: “The ‘rank and file’ seem very willing to further any scheme of their leaders.”

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