Lieutenant is derived from the French lieu tenente, 'place-holder', being originally a place-holder for the Captain - ie. someone who kept his files in order, brought him cups of tea, and all sorts of other such stuff. Hence the Royal Navy has the right idea on the pronunciation: "L'tenant" being the nearest anglicised version of the original French.

Other notable pronunciations (wrong, but we can let them off) are:

The British Army and RAF say "Lef-tenant";
Americans say "loo-tenant", which is how it looks, but we're not concerned here with form over function.

The military rank most often made fun of; a Lieutenant is an officer, and therefore outranks all enlisted personnel (often well over 50% of the total force), but:

  • he doesn't outrank any other officers*, so he is often their coffee boy, and
  • he has (typically) no practical experience.

The situation is right out of Dilbert; your boss has been assigned over you not because he knows what he's doing, but because somebody has taught him to be the boss. In any case, Lieutenants generally fill middle management roles, and so are ripe for jokes like those in Office Space. In combat, however, ineptitude is handled in a manner Charles Darwin would approve of: in Vietnam, the average life span of an Army Second Lieutenant in the field was under 4 days.

The pronunciation of "Lieutenant" is another strange thing that makes American Lieutenants laugh when they go to any country formerly owned by the UK (not counting America). I've never met any English Lieutenants, so I don't know if they laugh about it when they come over here, too, but the difference is in the first syllable:

They say "LEF-ten-unt", we say "LOO-ten-unt", and the original French pronunciation is closer to "LYUH-ten-awng". When I was last over in the UK at Mildenhall Royal Air Force Base (shortly after I had gotten my commission as a second lieutenant), I was waiting for my flight back to the states when the lady behind the counter called out my rank and last name over the loudspeaker. I almost went into a convulsive giggling fit.

*except in the Navy, where a lieutenant is equivalent in rank to an Army Captain--an O-3.

In addition to the explicit rank of Lieutenant as described by Jurph above, the term "Lieutenant" shows up in the name of certain other ranks in all of the US Armed Forces.

Because of similar etymology, "Lieutenant Commander" (Navy), "Lieutenant Colonel" (Army, Air Force, Marines), and "Lieutenant General" (Army, Air Force, Marines) all are typically the right-hand man (or woman) to the "full" version of the rank. Additionally, for the most part these ranks come with assignments to teach and test the responsibilities of the next higher rank; officers holding these "in lieu of" grades typically are promoted relatively quickly to the next higher grade, where they spend an extended length of time. In the US Army, for example, an officer can expect to spend 5-7 years as a Major, but only 2-3 as a Lieutenant Colonel before being promoted to a "full bird" Colonel (where he or she will usually serve for up to ten years, although retirement tends to comes first at these ranks).

This does create some confusion, though, particularly on behalf of the "order" of the General officer ranks. In order from lowest to highest in the Army, Air Force and Marines, the ranks go Brigadier General (O-7), Major General (O-8), Lieutenant General (O-9) and General (O-10). Those learning the rank structure of their respective service often wonder why a Major outranks a Lieutenant but a Lieutenant General outranks a Major General. The explanation is again in the etymology. As Jurph points out above, "Lieutenant" as a rank on it's own is indicative of someone who functions in the place of a Captain -- essentially a "Lieutenant Captain" if there were such a term. A Major, on the other hand, is someone who is simply "above" others -- hence a Sergeant Major who holds the highest of the Sergeant ranks*. Therefore while a Major General holds a high degree of responsibility and is in charge of a great number of people, a Lieutenant General is only slightly below a full General and can essentially function in his or her absence.

1 Yes, Sergeant Major isn't technically the highest rank; a Command Sergeant Major or Sergeant Major of the Army/Marine Corps will "outrank" a SGM, but these positions all hold the same grade. The Air Force alleviates (some of) this confusion by using the terms "Senior" and "Chief" (akin to the Navy's use of "Chief").

Lieu*ten"ant (?), n. [F., fr. lieu place + tenant holding, p. pr. of tenir to hold, L. tenere. See Lieu, and Tenant, and cf. Locum tenens.]


An officer who supplies the place of a superior in his absence; a representative of, or substitute for, another in the performance of any duty.

The lawful magistrate, who is the vicegerent or lieutenant of God. Abp. Bramhall.

2. (a)

A commissioned officer in the army, next below a captain.


A commissioned officer in the British navy, in rank next below a commander.


A commissioned officer in the United States navy, in rank next below a lieutenant commander.

Lieutenant is often used, either adjectively or in hyphened compounds, to denote an officer, in rank next below another, especially when the duties of the higher officer may devolve upon the lower one; as, lieutenant general, or lieutenant-general; lieutenant colonel, or lieutenant-colonel; lieutenant governor, etc.

Deputy lieutenant, the title of any one of the deputies or assistants of the lord lieutenant of a county. [Eng.] -- Lieutenant colonel, an army officer next in rank above major, and below colonel. -- Lieutenant commander, an officer in the United States navy, in rank next below a commander and next above a lieutenant. -- Lieutenant general. See in Vocabulary. -- Lieutenant governor. (a) An officer of a State, being next in rank to the governor, and in case of the death or resignation of the latter, himself acting as governor. [U. S.] (b) A deputy governor acting as the chief civil officer of one of several colonies under a governor general. [Eng.]


© Webster 1913.

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