Australia, New Zealand, and UK Air Forces' rank names are unique too, unlike North America's. So I focus here on the Canadian and US Army, Air Force, and Marines ranks that are the same. Why haven't the Canadian and US Navies standardized or equalized their ranks with their other branches?

Outwith onomatopoedia and sound symbolism, "most words are arbitrary with regards to their meaning". So I don't understand why the Navy requires its singular rank names. Or is this all merely an affair of tradition?

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Consider the rank of captain. It comes up both in the Navy and in the Army. It is also used in civilian shipping and aviation, and even figuratively as in "captain of industry." Once upon a time, both a company commander in the ground forces and a ship commander in the naval forces were called captain.

The deputy of a captain was the lieutenant. That designation also comes up in interesting places -- the lieutenant governor, the lieutenants of a gang boss, and so on. In the Royal Navy, the first lieutenant was the seniormost lieutenant on a ship.

As ships got bigger, the navy found it necessary to insert more ranks below the captain, while the army found it necessary to insert more ranks above the captain as armies got bigger and better organized while companies did not grow like ships.

  • 1
    Maybe add a bit of etymology and this would be perfect : Captain : capita is the head in Latin ; Lieutenant : the one that take the place (of the boss) almost literally in French ; There is also something similar with sergeant and corporal.
    – MakorDal
    Sep 18 '20 at 6:23
  • In the RN, anyone commanding a ship is called Captain, even if s/he does not hold the substantive rank. And the first commander of HMS Queen Elizabeth wore the insignia of, and was called *Captain", although his substantive rank was Commodore.
    – TheHonRose
    Sep 22 '20 at 23:34

Interservice rivalry. No branch of the military is going to give up its traditions in favor of those of another branch.

But for practical purposes, they do have common designations, as shown on the top line of that image. 2nd lieutenants and ensigns are both O-1, colonels and captains both O-6, and so on.

  • Those are Pay Grades which are used to uniformly determine pay, and also seniority across services. Thus the phrase "that's above my pay grade". NATO has a similar system between NATO armies.
    – Schwern
    Sep 18 '20 at 17:41
  • I always wondered about "Captain Peacock" in the UK comedy series "Are You Being Served?" because usually (Debretts) only British officers of field rank (Major and above) use the rank after retirement, and why would a retired naval Captain go to work in a store? There is an exception for retired (Army) Captains who have an equestrian role (e.g. Mark Phillips) which I don't really understand. Sep 18 '20 at 23:01
  • @Schwern: Yes, that's what makes the ensign equivalent to the 2nd lieutenant :-)
    – jamesqf
    Sep 19 '20 at 4:07
  • @Michael Harvey: In fiction, you will find many instances of British army & RAF captains using the rank after leaving the military, though I don't know whether real life follows fiction.
    – jamesqf
    Sep 19 '20 at 4:09
  • 2
    There aren't any "RAF captains". Sep 19 '20 at 6:25


Originally, there were only two branches of the US military: the Army, and the Navy. The modern Marines were established in 1798 as a specialist infantry force, with the organization and ranks coming from the Army. More recently, the Air Force evolved in the early 1900s as part of the US Army, so it's not surprising that it retained the Army's ranks when it was split off as its own branch of the military.

I expect you'll find a similar pattern in many countries: starting with an Army and a Navy, each with their own ranks, and other forces splitting off from one or the other and retaining the rank system of the parent force.

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