General Knowledge

If you listen to the television news long enough, you will hear someone address the Attorney General of the United States as General Gonzales. This usage always grates on my ear. The Attorney General is not a military officer and there is something unsettling about the chief law enforcement officer of a democracy assuming military pretensions. But as much as I dislike this particular form of address, the linguist in me recognizes that it is probably an inevitable development in the language.

The addressing of the attorney general as "general" is relatively recent, only becoming a practice when Janet Reno held the position from 1993-2001, during the Clinton administration. The problem with this form of address is that the general in the title functions as an adjective, denoting that the holder of the office is empowered to act in all cases to which the state is a party. The attorney general has general legal authority in all matters and the scope of his or her authority is not limited. The attorney general’s antithesis would be an attorney special or attorney particular, legal terms that are not used much today.

This is also why the plural of attorney general is attorneys general. The inflected s appears on the noun, not the adjective. Although more and more one sees attorney generals, indicating that people are starting to see the general as a noun or, at the least, as the title as a whole serving as a noun. This is only natural. The form noun-adjective is not a common one in English, where the modifier usually comes before the noun, adjective-noun.

This happened once before with a general modifier. Yes, the military title once had the form of noun-adjective too. The first general officer was the capteyn generall, an officer who had authority over the other captains, or commanders, in an army; in other words, the commander-in-chief. This term dates to 1514 and is a lift from the French, who used the rank captain général.

By 1576, the captain was being dropped from the title and superior officers were simply being addressed as general. But like the modern shift in the use of attorney general, the change from captain general to general was not instantaneous. That same year also sees the adjective general moving to its accustomed place in the front of the noun, generall Capytayne.

And captain was not the only noun being modified. There were sergeant generals (1579), colonel generals (1595), and sergeant major generals (c.1595). This last was further clipped to major general (1633). Except for the last, these titles have all gone by the wayside, at least in the English speaking world. (Some foreign ranks are translated as colonel general; the Russian army, for instance, has colonel generals). These titles were all used to denote high ranking officers without much regard for how they ranked with each other. The rigid rank structure that we are familiar with today did not exist four hundred years ago and all of these titles were used to denote officers of similar rank.

Two that are slightly different are lieutenant general and brigadier general. The former was adopted from the French in 1589 and was used to denote the deputy of a general officer. And today, this practice is preserved in the ranking of lieutenant general directly below that of a general.

It is sometimes claimed that a lieutenant general outranks a major general because the latter was originally a sergeant major general, and lieutenants outrank sergeants major (another title where the adjective follows the noun). This is bunk. The modern grades of rank are simply historical accident and there is no deeper logic to the comparative ranks.

The term brigadier general arose because that officer is in command of a brigade. The shorter form brigadier is a bit older, dating to 1678, while brigadier general does not appear until 1690. The shorter form brigadier is used in Britain, but not in the US military. Originally, the brigadier was simply the senior colonel in the brigade, commanding because of his seniority and not because he outranked the others. In this way, the rank is analogous to the naval commodore, who is the senior captain in a fleet of ships, a temporary position. In modern times, however, the rank has become official and is the lowest rank of general officer.

So there you have it. Attorney General Gonzales is not really a general, although it appears that those who hold that position will increasingly be addressed as general. Let’s just hope that attorneys general don’t start wearing uniforms, like the surgeons general do. (Ironically, the surgeon general wears a naval uniform.)


For those without familiarity with military ranks, here’s a bit of trivia.
The modern grades of general in the United States military are brigadier general (1 star), major general (two stars), lieutenant general (three stars), and general (4 stars). Their naval counterparts are rear admiral (lower half), rear admiral (upper half), vice admiral, and admiral. Both ranks of rear admiral wear two stars, which upsets their brigadier general peers in the other services who only get to wear one.

At various times, there have been two higher ranks. The post of General of the Armies of the United States was created by Congress in 1799, but it was never filled. George Washington had only been given the rank of lieutenant general. For most of the existence of the United States, the highest military rank was major general. During the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant was given the rank of lieutenant general, the first man to hold the rank since Washington. After the war, Grant was given the rank of General of the Army and took to wearing four stars–the first US military commander to do so. When Grant became president, William T. Sherman and then Philip H. Sheridan were subsequently appointed to the rank. The rank was abolished upon Sheridan’s death in 1888. Both Sherman and Sheridan wore the insignia of two stars with the arms of the United States in between.

Following World War I, the post of General of the Armies of the United States was finally filled by John J. Pershing, who had commanded the American Expeditionary Force during the war. He held the rank until his death in 1948. In 1976, Washington was posthumously elevated to this rank.

During the Second World War, the rank of General of the Army was revived. Four men were appointed to the post in December 1944:

  • George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff
  • Douglas MacArthur, commander in the Southwest Pacific
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander in Europe, and
  • Henry H. Arnold, Chief of Staff of the Army Air Forces (in 1947, he became General of the Air Force, the only man to have held that rank)

Following the war, Omar Bradley was appointed the rank in 1950, the last man to be given the honor. Each of these men wore the insignia of five stars.

There is a myth that the title of General of the Army was chosen instead of the European counterpart of Field Marshal because George C. Marshall did not want to be known as Marshal Marshall. There may be some element of truth to this, but the primary reason is undoubtedly the historical connection.

The naval counterpart to General of the Army is Fleet Admiral. Only four men have held this position, all during or just after WWII:

  • William D. Leahy, advisor to President Roosevelt
  • Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations
  • Chester W. Nimitz, commander in the Central Pacific, and
  • William F. Halsey

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