AskDefine | Define colonel

Dictionary Definition

colonel n : a commissioned military officer in the United States Army or Air Force or Marines who ranks above a lieutenant colonel and below a brigadier general

User Contributed Dictionary



First attested 1548, from coronel, from Italian colonnello the officer of a small company of soldiers (column) that marched at the head of a regiment, from compagna colonnella little column company, from columna pillar.


  • /ˈkɜːnəl/ (UK) or /ˈkɝnəl/ (US)
  • /"k3:n@l/ (UK) or /"k3`n@l/ (US)
    Rhymes: -ɜː(r)nəl



  1. A commissioned officer in the army, air force, or marine corps. In U.S. military, it ranks above a lieutenant colonel and below a brigadier general.

Related terms


Extensive Definition

Colonel () 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 non-military rank structures.
Today, a colonel is usually a military title rated as the highest, or the second-highest field rank below the general, or "star" 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 was to some extent embodied in a contract and set of written rules, his regiment or standing regulation(s). By extension, the group of companies subject to a colonel's regiment came to be referred to as his regiment 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, 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.

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.

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

Western European equivalent ranks

Other national equivalent ranks

  • 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

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):

Other uses of Colonel ranks


As a mascot

The "Colonel" is the mascot of various organisations.


colonel in Bosnian: Pukovnik
colonel in Catalan: Coronel
colonel in Czech: Plukovník
colonel in Danish: Oberst
colonel in German: Oberst
colonel in Estonian: Kolonel
colonel in Spanish: Coronel
colonel in Esperanto: Kolonelo
colonel in French: Colonel
colonel in Indonesian: Kolonel
colonel in Italian: Colonnello
colonel in Hebrew: קולונל
colonel in Dutch: Kolonel
colonel in Japanese: 大佐
colonel in Norwegian: Oberst
colonel in Polish: Pułkownik (stopień wojskowy)
colonel in Portuguese: Coronel
colonel in Russian: полковник
colonel in Slovenian: Polkovnik
colonel in Finnish: Eversti
colonel in Swedish: Överste
colonel in Vietnamese: Đại tá
colonel in Turkish: Albay
colonel in Ukrainian: полковник
colonel in Chinese: 上校

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

ADC, CO, OD, aide, aide-de-camp, brigadier, brigadier general, captain, chicken colonel, chief of staff, commandant, commander, commander in chief, commanding officer, commissioned officer, company officer, exec, executive officer, field marshal, field officer, first lieutenant, five-star general, four-star general, general, general officer, generalissimo, jemadar, junior officer, lieutenant, lieutenant colonel, lieutenant general, major, major general, marechal, marshal, officer, one-star general, orderly officer, risaldar, senior officer, shavetail, sirdar, staff officer, subahdar, subaltern, sublieutenant, the Old Man, the brass, three-star general, top brass, two-star general
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