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October 26, 2008

Wikipedia: Colonel

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Common military ranks
Navies1 Armies and
Air Forces
Air Forces
Admiral of
the Fleet
Field Marshal Marshal of
the Air Force
Admiral General Air Marshal
Commodore Brigadier Air Commodore
Captain Colonel Group Captain
Commander Lt. Colonel Wing Commander
Lt. Commander Major Squadron Leader
Lieutenant Captain Flight Lieutenant
Sub-Lieutenant Lieutenant Flying Officer
Seamen, soldiers and airmen
Warrant Officer Sergeant Major Warrant Officer
Petty Officer Sergeant Sergeant
Leading Rate Corporal Corporal
Seaman Private Aircraftman
1 in the Commonwealth


Colonel (RP IPA: /ˈkɜ:nəl/, GA IPA: /ˈkɜrnəl/) is a military rank of a commissioned officer, with corresponding ranks existing in almost every country in the world. The rank of colonel is one of the oldest in existence, dating as far back as the time of the Roman Empire. It is also used in some police forces and other paramilitary rank structures.

Today, a colonel is usually a military title rated as the highest, or the second-highest field rank below the general, or “flag” grades. In some small military forces, it can be the highest rank held.


History and origins

The term colonel derives from Latin columnella ‘small column’. However, it was never actually a Roman rank. The system of ranks in the Roman military was quite different. As a rank the term arose in the late sixteenth century Italy where it referred to the officer in charge of a column (Italian colonna, plural colonne) or field force. The term is first attested as colonnello, but it is perhaps a truncation of something like capitano colonnello ‘captain of the column, the captain designated to command the column’. In this context colonna seems to refer to a force marching in column, rather than to a battle formation — a battle or battlation of pike.

As the office of colonel became an established practice, the colonel became the senior captain in a group of companies which were all sworn to observe his personal authority — to be ruled or regimented by him. This regiment, or governance, was to some extent embodied in a contract and set of written rules, also referred to as the colonel’s regiment or standing regulation(s). By extension, the group of companies subject to a colonel’s regiment (in the foregoing sense) came to be referred to as his regiment (in the modern sense) as well.

With the shift from primarily mercenary to primarily national armies in the course of the seventeenth century, a colonel (normally a member of the aristocracy) became a holder (German Inhaber) or proprietor of a military contract with a sovereign. The colonel purchased the regimental contract — the right to hold the regiment — from the previous holder of that right or direct from the sovereign when a new regiment was formed or an incumbent was killed.

In French usage of this period the senior colonel in the army or in a field force — the senior military contractor — was the colonel general and, in the absence of the sovereign or his designate, the colonel general might serve as the commander of a force. The position, however, was primarily contractual and it became progressively more of a functionless sinecure. (The head of a single regiment or demi brigade would be called a mestre de camp or, after the Revolution, a chef de brigade.)

By the late 19th century, colonel was a professional military rank though still held typically by an officer in command of a regiment or equivalent unit. Along with other ranks it has become progressively more a matter of ranked duties, qualifications and experience and of corresponding titles and pay scale than of functional office in a particular organization.

As European military influence has expanded throughout the world, the rank of colonel became adopted by nearly every nation in existence under a variety of names.

With the rise of communism, some of the large Communist militaries saw fit to expand the Colonel rank into several grades, resulting in the unique senior colonel rank which was found and is still used in such nations as China and North Korea.

In modern English, the word colonel is pronounced similarly to kernel (of grain) as a result of entering the language from Middle French in two competing forms, dissimilated coronel and colonel. The more conservative spelling colonel was favored in written use and eventually became the standard spelling even as it lost out in pronunciation to coronel.


Main article: Colonel-in-Chief

In many modern armies the ‘regiment’ has more importance as a ceremonial unit or a focus of common loyalty amongst its members, rather than as an actual battle formation. Troops tend to be deployed in ‘Battalions’ (commanded by a lieutenant colonel) as a more convenient size of military unit, and as such colonels have tended to have a higher profile in specialist and command roles rather than as actual commanders of regiments. However, in Commonwealth armies the position of the colonel as the figurehead of a Regiment is maintained in the honorary role of colonel-in-chief, usually held by members of the Royal Family,[1] the nobility, or retired senior military officers. The Colonel-in-Chief wears a Colonel’s uniform and encourages the members of the regiment, but takes no active part in the actual command structure or in any operational duties.[2]

Colonel and equivalent ranks by country

Colonel in individual military forces

The following articles deal with the rank of colonel as it is used in various national militaries.

  • Colonel (Canada)
  • Colonel (United Kingdom)
  • Colonel (United States)
  • Coronel (Hispanic nations)
  • Kolonel (Netherlands)
  • Kolonel (Albania)
  • Colonel (Pakistan)
  • Colonel (India)

Eastern European equivalent ranks

Since the 16th century, the rank of regimental commander was adopted by several Central and Eastern European armies, most notably the forces of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Cossacks and then Muscovy. In countries with slavic languages, the exact name of the rank maintains a variety of spellings, all descendant from the Old Slavonic word plk or polk meaning unit of standing army (see The Tale of Igor’s Campaign), and include the following:

  • Plukovník (Czech Republic and Slovakia)
  • Pułkownik (Poland)
  • Pulkininkas (Lithuania)
  • Polkovnik (Russia, Slovenia, Bulgaria)
  • Polkovnyk (Ukraine)
  • Pukovnik (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia)

The Hungarian equivalent ezredes literally means “leader of a thousand” (i.e. of a regiment) .

Western European equivalent ranks

  • Oberst (Germany, Denmark and Norway)
  • Överste (Sweden)
  • Ofursti (Iceland)
  • Eversti (Finland)
  • Syntagmatarhis (Greece)
  • Colonnello in the Italian Army, Carabinieri and Italian Air Force

Other national equivalent ranks

  •  Afghanistan Dagarwal (دګروال)
  •  China Shang Xiao
  •  Iran Sarhang (سرهنگ)
  •  Israel Aluf Mishne
  •  North Korea Sangchwa
  •  Republic of Korea Taeryong
  •  Thailand Nai Phan (TH: นายพัน) Chief of 1,000
    • Phan Ek (TH: พันเอก) First of 1,000: Colonel
    • Phan Tho (TH: พันโท) Second of 1,000: Lieutenant Colonel
  •  Turkey Albay


Colonel as highest ranking officer

Some military forces have a colonel as their highest ranking officer, with no ‘general’ ranks, and no superior authority (except, perhaps, the head of state as a titular commander-in-chief) other than the respective national government. Examples include the following (arranged alphabetically by country name):

  • Antigua and Barbuda (170 personnel)
  • Benin (4,500 personnel)
  • Costa Rica (about 8,000 personnel)
  • Gambia (1,900 personnel)
  • Iceland (100 personnel, employed only for peacekeeping duties)
  • Luxembourg (has only one branch, the army, with a total of 1,500 personnel)
  • Monaco (two branches, with a total of about 250 personnel)
  • Niger (8,000 personnel)
  • Suriname (1,800 personnel)
  • Vatican City State (now consisting of a single branch, the Swiss Guard)
Rank insignia for a COLONEL in several nations which have no higher military rank.
 Costa Rica
Colonel CCP
Colonel CSP
 Vatican City

Other uses of Colonel ranks

Lawyers in Georgia

Traditionally, lawyers in the Georgia state courts are addressed by the judge as “colonel.”


  • Standartenführer (was a separate SS-rank in Nazi Germany, was not used in the Wehrmacht)

As a mascot

The “Colonel” is the mascot of various organisations.

  • Eastern Kentucky University
  • Centre College
  • Curry College
  • Nicholls State University
  • Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
  • The Kentucky Colonels, a successful team in the American Basketball Association
  • Kentucky Fried Chicken (whose mascot is based on a real person, Colonel Sanders, who was a genuine (non-military) Kentucky colonel.)


  1. ^ See this list of colonel-in-chief appointments held by HRH The Prince of Wales.
  2. ^ A webpage by a Scottish regiment concerning their Colonel-in-Chief.
  • Comparative military ranks
  • Keegan, John; & Wheatcroft, Andrew (1996). Who’s Who in Military History: From 1453 to the Present Day. London: Routledge.
  • Cecil Adams of the Straight Dope on the pronunciation of “colonel”:
This text comes from Wikipedia. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. For a complete list of contributors for this article, visit the corresponding history entry on Wikipedia.

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