France is credited with being pioneers in organising Armed Forces in war-fighting structures which are largely still relevant. The French invented terms for units, formations, ranks, tactics or day-to-day life, are linked to the DNA of all modern military terms. We often use many such military terms without realising their literal meanings which narrate their fascinating French origins. At times, the words may not directly hail from French but may have an indirect linkages through its mother language Latin, through its sister languages Italian & Spanish or through its contemporary Arabic due to military interactions around mediterranean.
The roots of the ‘French Connection’ are believed to be linked to the Norman conquest of England in 1066 AD led by the Duke of Normandy, William the Conqueror. The language of ruling class in England became French and remained so for two to three centuries. It was that period in England when speaking French was considered chic.
A man would be considered to be rustic if he proposed his love saying ‘I Love You’ in English and hence the British proposals were using French equivalent expression ‘Je t’aime’. Such inferiority complex continued until the arrival of legends like Shakespeare who brought English to the centerstage of literary world and then the British as colonial powers, took their language to all corners of the planet.
The rank structures have a distinct French origin. The term ‘Rank’ itself originates from the word ‘rangue’ or earlier version ‘ranc’ which means a set of graduated rows delineating the social status. Each of the military ranks have an interesting origin. The term ‘Lieutenant’ literally is combination of two words ‘Lieu’ and ‘Tenant’. Lieu means ‘place’ and tenant literally means ‘the one who takes it’.
So a Lieutenant literally would mean a person who takes places (that have become void). A Lieutenant Colonel hence would take place of the Colonel and so is the case of Lieutenant General. While the Lieutenant Colonel and Lieutenant General have Colonel and General to cover for, the Lieutenant’ has nothing specified to cover and no wonder the two star Lieutenants are made to fill any and every empty slot. The Arabic word ‘Naib’ also an equivalent term which is used to name the deputies as ‘Naib Subedar’ or ‘Naib Risaldar’.
The term ‘Captain’ comes from the word ‘Chevtaigne’ which means chieftain or head of a group. The term ‘Major’ originates from ‘majeure’ which means adult. It was this rank which in yesteryears enjoyed the respect of being a senior and experienced person amongst junior officers and ranks.
Contrary to the adults, the term Cadet originates from the word ‘Cadet’ which means a younger brother and hence was used for the under trainee students in military schools. It is believed that they were also employed to pick the golf bags of seniors visiting the military schools and the practice gave birth to the term ‘caddy’ being used in golf today. As regards the rank of Colonel, it is named such due its responsibility of leading a wartime column of troops.
The word ‘Command’ means an order and the verb for giving an order is ‘Commander’ and the one who issues such orders is referred as ‘Commandeur’. This obviously gave the appointment of Commanders. Incidentally, the distorted form of same term is used as ‘Commodore’ rank in Navy and Air Force. The naval rank ‘Admiral’ comes from the term ‘Amirail’ which means ‘a Saracen (Arab/ Muslim) leader’.
Military Organisations, Units and Sub-Units
Terms for echelons of Armed Forces are largely derived from French. The term ‘Army’ itself originates from the word ‘Armée’ which means ‘to arm somebody’. The term ‘Platoon’ comes from the word ‘pelote’ which are tiny balls, also known as pellets in English. The word ‘pelote’ led to the term ‘pelotone’ which means a group of people. Moving up the echelons the term ‘company’ originates from the word ‘compagnie’ which means a large group of people. The term ‘Battalion’ hails from the word ‘Bataile’ which means ‘battle’. The term ‘Brigade’ originates from the same word in French which means a large body of troops. The term ‘briggare’ also means ‘to fight’.
Terms for echelons of Armed Forces are largely derived from French. The term ‘Army’ itself originates from the word ‘Armée’ which means ‘to arm somebody’. The term ‘Platoon’ comes from the word ‘pelote’ which are tiny balls, also known as pellets in English.
The term ‘Division’ comes from the same word and means ‘a portion of an army, fleet or ship. The system of ‘Corps’ comprising two to three divisions, was mooted by Napoleon and the term literally means ‘the body’. Conceptually, each corps was a separate fighting body, with a head. A ‘squadron’ meant a square formation which the cavalry men would form to protect the infantry from attacks from flanks. Sabre squadrons are the fighting squadrons and the word ‘Sabre’ literally means ‘Sword’ implying the cavalrymen on horses with swords in their hands.
The romance with swords is so much amongst the officers of Armoured Corps in France, is that till date they open champagne bottles only with swords which severe the neck of the bottles in one go and the cork goes off flying through the window with great precision. The term ‘Battery’ of an Artillery Regiment originates from the word ‘batre’ meaning ‘to beat’ and the word ‘batterie’ which meant ‘beating, thrashing or assault’.
Various Arms & Services and the French Connection
The term ‘Infantry’ obviously originated from ‘infanterie’ which in turn originated from ‘infant’ meaning someone whose movement is on foot. The term ‘Sapper’ used for military Engineers, originates from the word ‘Sapeur’ which meant a person who would dig to make a wall collapse or would dig a trench. In French army, the Military engineers are also called ‘genie’, very aptly considered as the genie who will fulfil all wishes.
The first in battle ‘Pioneers’ have their origin in the word ‘Paonier’ meaning ‘foot soldiers’ carrying tools to dig and cut wires, who would reach first and accomplish task before arrival of something else. This analogy also gave birth to the term ‘peon’ who is a person who would reach first and prepare before arrival of others. The English and French term ‘aviation’ originates from the latin ‘avis’ meaning ‘birds’.
The term ‘Para’ is used in words such as parachute, para-medic and para-military. The French system of prefix of ‘para’ is in two contexts – firstly as a counter-action to something and secondly as a Demi or part of something. As a counter-action, the term ‘parachute’ comprises ‘para’ (against) and ‘chute’ (fall) which implies something is stopped from falling. Similarly a parasol wherein ‘sol’ means ‘earth or floor’, these are those chemical vapours which once released, will not fall on the floor. In the partial or demi context, paramilitary would be a half or partial army and paramedic would be someone who provides medical assistance but is not a doctor.
Weapons, Military Stores, Equipment and Assets
Origin of Rifle is the word ‘rifler’ which means ‘to cut spiral grooves’ for which rifles are known for. The previous versions were ‘muskets’ which were smooth bored. Bullets have their origins in word ‘Boulettes’ meaning small balls. ‘Boulettes’ itself is a combination of ‘Boule’ (ball) and ‘ettes’ (denoting smaller or secondary nature).
Similarly, as compared to the large cigars, the smaller size smoking sticks were called the ‘cigarettes’. Cordite is a rope like explosive used for demising and is linked to the word ‘chord’ meaning rope. The grenades have their origin in the fruit ‘pomegranate’ since the grenades had appearance of this fruit and on bursting, they would explodes into fragments and seed like splinters. Incidentally, the word pomegranate literally means ‘pomme’ (apple) with ‘granates’ (many seeds).
The soldiers entrusted with lobbing grenades were obviously known as ‘grenadieurs’. The cartridges have their origin in the word ‘Cartouche’ and ‘Cartage’ which means a container or box. The Cartouche were gunpowder wrapped in paper roll and the paper in French is called ‘Carte’. The reason for calling the art of making maps on paper as ‘cartography’, is also the same. Accordingly, the term ‘Carte-Blanche’ implies giving a blank (blanche) paper (carte) to someone. The formidable forts have their origin in the word ‘fort’ which means ‘strong’.
Pontoons originate from the word ‘Pont’ which means a bridge. The bayonets were named so because these flat daggers were conceptualised in the ‘Bayonne’ city in South France which in turn was named so because of situated near a bay. Bivouacs have German origin and is composed of two words ‘Bi’ (By) and ‘Wacht’ (the Guard) implying camping outdoor without tents.
The lanyards originate from the word ‘lanide’ meaning a small rope to secure something. The epaulettes are those ceremonial rank badges worn on shoulders and originate from the word ‘epaule’ which means shoulders. Similarly the threaded ceremonial lanyards aiguillettes have their origins in the word ‘aiguille’ which means needle and the ‘aiguillete’ meaning a needle threaded lace. The uniform has its origin from ‘Uni’ (one) and ‘forme’ (form) implying a dress which is in one common form and is ‘uniformly’ applicable to all.
Contrary to the popular belief established through Social Media forwards that the word ‘Mess’ originates from the acronym M.E.S.S (Members of Equal Social Status), the origin of the word ‘Mess’ is from old French ‘mes’ meaning a potion of food, placed on a table. The ‘Band’ originates from ‘Bande’ which means a strip of cloth used for identification. The term was commonly used for a group of men or musicians.
The military musicians hailing from a regiment wearing their insignia also were known as bands. The cloth strip ‘bands’ were used by kings to convey their messages which the horse mounted messenger would read and announce which all material were permitted to be used. Any item not listed in this ‘band’ gave birth to word ‘contraband’ ie illicit items. Such messengers were also referred as ‘courriers’ originating from the word ‘courir’ which literally means ‘to run’. The commercial system of dispatching letter as couriers, has the same origin.
The word ‘etiquettes’ originates from French ‘etiquette’ literally meaning a ticket, card or a placard placed publicly to educate about the correct and appropriate social behaviour such as a placard saying ‘Do Not Spit’ or ‘Do Not Smoke’. The term ‘rendezvous’ or commonly known military acronym RV originates from combination of words ‘rendez-vous’ which literally means ‘present yourself’, implying ‘be there’.
The most essential aspects of military routine are ‘Revieille’ and ‘Retreat’, the terms denoting the start and end of the day. The word ‘revielle’ literally means ‘to wake up’ and ‘retreat’ originates from ‘Retraite’ meaning to retreat or withdraw from the battle at the end of day. The word also led to the term ‘Retirement’. Military officers are granted ‘commission’ by an authority which in Indian context is the President.
Commission originates from ‘Co’ (with or together) and ‘Mission’ (to send abroad for a task with vested authority). Hence, commission granted by the president is a special authority available to none other. This commissioning is granted through a presidential ‘parchment’ which has its origin in ‘parchemin’ meaning a kind of skin of goat or sheep which is used for writing something. The commissioning is also used for sending new ships to the sea or withdrawing (decommissioning). The trace of the word commission is also there in ‘Missionary’ which was a team sent abroad to spread God’s message. The term ‘recruit’ comes from ‘Recrue’ meaning to supply a military deficiency or to re-crew the team.
Military Routine Expressions and Common Terms
The system of firing ‘several ammunition rounds successively is called firing of ‘Salvos’ and has the origin of same word which means ‘a volley of bullets’. Militaries are known for salutes. The salute has its fascinating origin from the word ‘Salvo’ which were fired whenever a dignitary was visiting a kingdom and gradually the term salute came into existence. French people also use the word ‘Salut’ to greet people, especially friends of similar age or informal acquaintances. The term ‘cantonment’ comes from the word
‘Cantonner’ which is an act of dividing an area into ‘cantons’ (corners) for quartering the troops. The term ‘Canteen’ comes from the word ‘Cantine’ which is a Sutler’s shop that moves with the unit. This system exists in Indian Army as well wherein the ‘Baniya Canteen’ is integral to the unit and moves with the units. A ‘Depot’ originates from the word ‘Depôt’ meaning a place to deposit items.
The salaries of military persons have their origin in the word ‘Salaire’ which means wages paid as ‘salt money’ for soldiers to buy salt and also payment for their yearly service from revenues generated out of sale of salt. While salary was for the present service, the term ‘Pension’ implied payments in consideration of something or for past service. Billets are the assigned places occupied by military person. It has its origin in the word ‘Billet’ which means a ticket given to assign accommodation number from a ‘Bille’ (a written statement). The origin of the word ‘Bills’ or a ‘Dollar Bill’, is also from this same word ‘Bille’.
War Fighting and Tactical Military Terms
An essential part of military operations is patrolling which has its origin in the word ‘Patrouiller’ which literally means to paddle in the mud. It denotes cross country movement of patrols through difficult terrain. The term ‘Ambush’ stems from the word ‘Embuschier’ meaning ‘to place or hide oneself in a wood’. The term ‘caché’ literally means ‘hidden’ and hence is used for concealed dump of stores or arms.
The term for procuring information is Recce or Reconaitre, which originates from a combination of two words – Re (again) and Connaitre (to know). Each flying activity of military aircrafts is called a ‘sortie’ which originates from the same word ‘Sortie’ and literally means ‘to exit’. The action of placing troops and units is called deployment and it originates from the verb ‘Deployer’ that literally means ‘to unfold’, an activity like unfolding a mat or sheet.
The frontmost elements of an advancing military column referred as ‘Van Guard’ has its origin in the combination of ‘Avante’ (ahead) and ‘Garde’ (Guard). The term ‘Avante Garde’ has also been borrowed intact in English and is used to denote those persons or firms which are credited to be pioneers of a field.
The high risk military operations ‘Coup-de-Main’ originates from the three word combination ‘Coup – Nudge or Blow’, ‘de – of’ and ‘Main – Hand’ which figuratively means ‘giving a helping hand’ or to aide an effort. Thus the special operations such as Heliborne operations in depth are ‘Coup-de-Main’ to the main operations.
The hidden warriors ‘Guerrillas’ have their origin in the word ‘Guerre’ which means war. Shifting from war, the word for peace in French is ‘Paix’ pronounced exactly as ‘pay’ in English. The term ‘Pax’ in the peace guarantor terms such as ‘Pax Americana’, ‘Pax Britannica’ or ‘Pax Romana’, originates from the French ‘Paix’.
The expression ‘May-Day’ is used in emergencies. It originates from the expression ‘M’aidez’ which actually means ‘Help Me’. Since it is pronounced as ‘May-Day’ in French, the anglicised written form also has been distorted and is now is universally used as ‘May Day’.
The influence of French words is not only restricted to military terms but also in the fields where the French were the ‘avant-gardes’ such as gastronomy, physics and fashion. The words discussed in the article are not exhaustive and there would certainly be many such words with fascinating stories of their origins. The collection discussed here is merely ‘Hors d’œuvre’ which literally means ‘outside work’ and is a term used for ‘appetisers’ only, before the series of courses of the main meal!