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A lieutenant (abbreviated Lt., LT., Lieut. and LEUT.) is a junior commissioned officer in many nations' armed forces.

The meaning of lieutenant differs in different military formations (see comparative military ranks), but is often subdivided into senior (first lieutenant) and junior (second lieutenant) ranks. In navies it is often equivalent to the army rank of captain; it may also indicate a particular post rather than a rank. The rank is also used in fire services, emergency medical services, security services and police forces.

Lieutenant may also appear as part of a title used in various other organizations with a codified command structure. It often designates someone who is "second-in-command," and as such, may precede the name of the rank directly above it. For example, a "lieutenant master" is likely to be second-in-command to the "master" in an organization using both ranks. Notable uses include lieutenant governor in various governments, and Quebec lieutenant in Canadian politics.


The word lieutenant derives from French; the lieu meaning "place" as in a position (cf. in lieu of); and tenant meaning "holding" as in "holding a position"; thus a "lieutenant" is somebody who holds a superior's position in his or her absence (compare the Latin locum tenens). Similar words in other languages include the Arabic mulāzim (Arabic language: ملازم‎), meaning "holding a place", and the Hebrew word segen (Hebrew: סגן‎), meaning "deputy" or "second to". In the nineteenth century, British writers who considered this word either an imposition on the English language, or difficult for common soldiers and sailors, argued for it to be replaced by the calque "steadholder." However, their efforts failed, and the French word is still used, along with its many variations, (e.g. lieutenant colonel, lieutenant general, lieutenant commander, flight lieutenant, second lieutenant and many non-English language examples), in both the Old and the New World.[citation needed]


Pronunciation of lieutenant is generally split between the forms /lɛfˈtɛnənt/ lef-TEN-ənt and Listeni/ljuːˈtɛnənt/ lew-TEN-ənt, with the former generally associated with the armies of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries, and the latter generally associated with anyone from the United States.[1] The early history of the pronunciation is unclear; Middle English spellings suggest that the /ljuː-/ and /lɛf-/ pronunciations may have existed even then.[2] The rare Old French variant spelling luef for Modern French lieu ('place') supports the suggestion that a final [w] of the Old French word was in certain environments perceived as an [f].[2] In Royal Naval tradition—and other English-speaking navies outside the United States—a reduced pronunciation /ləˈtɛnənt/ is used. This is not recognized as current by the OED, however, and by 1954 the Royal Canadian Navy, at least, regarded it as "obsolescent" even while regarding "the army's 'LEF-tenant'" to be "a corruption of the worst sort".[3]

Army ranks[]

Conventionally, armies and other services or branches which use army-style rank titles have two grades of lieutenant, but a few also use a third, more junior, rank.

Historically the "lieutenant" was the deputy to a "captain", and as the rank structure of armies began to formalise, this came to mean that a captain commanded a company and had several lieutenants, each commanding a platoon. Where more junior officers were employed as deputies to the lieutenant, they went by many names, including second lieutenant, sub-lieutenant, ensign and cornet. Some parts of the British Army, including the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers and fusilier regiments, used first lieutenant as well as second lieutenant until the end of the 19th century, and some British Army regiments still preserve cornet as an official alternative to second lieutenant.

Lieutenant/first lieutenant[]

The senior grade of lieutenant is known as first lieutenant in the United States, and as lieutenant in the United Kingdom and the rest of the English-speaking world. In countries which do not speak English, the rank title usually translates as "lieutenant", but may also translate as "first lieutenant" or "senior lieutenant". The Israel Defence Forces rank Segen (סגן) literally translates as "Deputy", which is equivalent to a Lieutenant.

There is great variation in the insignia used worldwide. In most English-speaking and Arabic-speaking countries, as well as a number of European and South American nations, full lieutenants (and equivalents) usually wear two stars (pips) and second lieutenants (and equivalents) one. An example of an exception is the United States, whose armed forces distinguish their lieutenant ranks with one silver bar for first lieutenant and one gold (brass) bar for second lieutenant.

CDN-Army-Lt 221-Oberleutnant Army-GRE-OF-01a Sotvan 1 File:IE-Army-OF1a.png Rank insignia of tenete of the Army of Italy (1973) Porucnik-arm-shoulder Mexican Military Teniente Army-POL-OF-01a SWE-Löjtnant RO-Army-OF1a Russia-army-st-leytenant Army-USA-OF-01a IDF segen
Canada Germany Greece Iran Ireland Italy Macedonia Mexico Poland Sweden Romania Russia US Israel

Second lieutenant[]

Second lieutenant is usually the most junior grade of commissioned officer. In most cases, newly commissioned officers do not remain at the rank for long before being promoted, and both university graduates and officers commissioned from the ranks may skip the rank altogether.[citation needed] In non-English-speaking countries, the equivalent rank title may translate as "second lieutenant", "lieutenant", "sub-lieutenant" or "junior lieutenant". Non-English terms include alferes (Portuguese Army and Air Force), alférez (Spanish Army and Air Force), fänrik (Swedish Armed Forces), ensign, Leutnant (German Army), letnan (Indonesian National Armed Forces), Segen mishne (Israel Defense Forces) or løjtnant (Danish Army).

CDN-Army-2Lt 211-Leutnant Army-GRE-OF-01b Sotvan 2 File:IE-Army-OF1b.png Rank insignia of sottotenete of the Army of Italy (1973) Potporucnik-arm-shoulder Mexican Military Subteniente Army-POL-OF-01b SWE-Fänrik RO-Army-OF1b Russia-army-leytenant Army-USA-OF-01b IDF segen mishne
Canada Germany Greece Iran Ireland Italy Macedonia Mexico Poland Sweden Romania Russia US Israel

Third lieutenant[]


Eastern European ranks[]

A few non-English-speaking militaries maintain a lower rank, frequently translated as "third lieutenant". The rank title may actually translate as "second lieutenant", "junior lieutenant", "sub-lieutenant" or "ensign". The Soviet Union used three ranks of lieutenant, and Warsaw Pact countries similarly standardized their ranking system. Some of the former Soviet and Warsaw Pact nations have now discarded the third rank while many retain it like Bulgaria.

American brevet second lieutenants[]

Throughout the 19th century and until as late as World War II[4] the United States Army sometimes referred to brevet second lieutenants as "third lieutenants." These were typically newly commissioned officers for which no authorized second lieutenant position existed. Additionally, the Confederate States Army also used "third lieutenant", typically as the lowest ranking commissioned officer in an infantry company.

Naval rank[]

Naval officer ranks
Flag officers:

Admiral of the fleetFleet admiralGrand admiral
AdmiralGeneral admiral
Vice admiralSquadron vice-admiralLieutenant admiral
Rear admiralCounter admiralDivisional admiral
CommodoreFlotilla admiral

Senior officers:

CaptainCapt at seaCapt of sea and warShip-of-the-line Capt
CommanderFrigate captain
Lieutenant commanderCorvette captain

Junior officers:

Captain lieutenantLieutenantShip-of-the-line lieutenant
Frigate lieutenantLieutenant (junior grade)Sub-lieutenant
Corvette lieutenantEnsign

Lieutenant commander[]

Lieutenants were commonly put in command of smaller vessels not warranting a commander or captain: such a lieutenant was called a "lieutenant commanding" or "lieutenant commandant" in the United States Navy, and a "lieutenant in command" or "lieutenant and commander" in the Royal Navy. The USN settled on "lieutenant commander" in 1862, and made it a distinct rank; the Royal Navy followed suit in March 1914. The insignia of an additional half-stripe between the two full stripes of a lieutenant was introduced in 1877 for a Royal Navy lieutenant of 8 years seniority, and used for lieutenant commanders upon introduction of their rank.[5]

GR-Navy-OF3 POR-Navy-OF3 US Navy O4 insignia
Greece Portugal US


During the early days of the naval rank, a lieutenant might be very junior indeed, or might be on the cusp of promotion to captain; by modern standards he might rank with any army rank between second lieutenant and lieutenant colonel. As the rank structure of navies stabilised, and the ranks of commander, lieutenant commander and sub-lieutenant were introduced, the naval lieutenant came to rank with an army captain (NATO OF-2 or US O-3).

The insignia of a lieutenant in many navies, including the Royal Navy,[6] consists of two medium gold braid stripes (top stripe with loop) on a navy blue or black background. This pattern was copied by the United States Navy and various Air Forces for their equivalent ranks grades, except that the loop is removed (see flight lieutenant).

Lieutenant-de-vaisseau-France GR-Navy-OF2 POR-Navy-primeiro-tenente US Navy O3 insignia
France Greece Portugal US

"First lieutenant" in naval use[]

The first lieutenant in the Royal Navy and other Commonwealth navies, is a post or appointment, rather than a rank. Historically the lieutenants in a ship were ranked in accordance with seniority, with the most senior being termed the "first lieutenant" and acting as the second-in-command. Although lieutenants are no longer numbered by seniority, the post of "first lieutenant" remains. In minor war vessels, destroyers and frigates the first lieutenant (either a lieutenant or lieutenant-commander) is second in command, executive officer (XO) and head of the executive branch; in larger ships where a commander of the warfare specialisation is appointed as the executive officer, a first lieutenant (normally a lieutenant-commander) is appointed as his deputy. The post of first lieutenant in a shore establishment carries a similar responsibility to the first lieutenant of a capital ship. In the U.S. Navy or U.S. Coast Guard the billet of first lieutenant describes the officer in charge of the deck department or division, depending upon the size of the ship. In smaller ships with only a single deck division, the billet is typically filled by an ensign while in larger ships with a deck department, consisting of multiple subordinate divisions, the billet may be filled by a lieutenant commander. On submarines and smaller Coast Guard cutters the billet of first lieutenant may be filled by a petty officer.


In the Royal Navy the commissioned rank of mate was created in 1840, and was renamed sub-lieutenant in 1860. In the US Navy the rank was called master until 1883, when it was renamed lieutenant, junior grade. In many navies, a sub-lieutenant is a naval commissioned or subordinate officer, ranking below a lieutenant, but in Brazil it is the highest non-commissioned rank, and in Spain it is the second highest non-commissioned rank. In Portugal, sub-lieutenant is the rank of a junior naval officer graduated from a civil university or promoted from a NCO rank, while the equivalent rank of an officer graduated in the naval academy is designated midshipman.

Ens1-Can-2010 POR-Navy-guarda-marinha Generic-Navy-O1 US Navy O2 insignia
Canada Portugal UK US

Marine rank[]

The United States Marine Corps and British Royal Marines[7] both use army ranks, while many former Eastern-Bloc marine forces retain the naval form[Clarification needed]. Before 1999 the Royal Marines enjoyed the same rank structure as the army, but at a grade higher; thus a Royal Marine captain ranked with and was paid the same as a British Army major. This historical remnant caused increasing confusion in multi-national operations and was abolished.

Air force rank[]

While some air forces use the army rank system, the British Royal Air Force and many other Commonwealth air forces use another rank system in which flight lieutenant ranks with an army captain and naval lieutenant, a flying officer ranks with an army lieutenant, and a pilot officer with an army second lieutenant.

NATO OF-2 / US O-3
Thai air O2 UK-Air-OF2 RAAF O3 rank Flight Lieutenant of IAF

NATO OF-1a / US O-2
CDN-Air Force-Lt Luftwaffe-221-Oberleutnant Teniente de la FAM Porucznik Lotnicze RO-Airforce-OF-2bs Tte-ea SWE-Airforce-löjtnant US Air Force O2 shoulderboard

NATO OF-1b / US O-1
CDN-Air Force-2Lt Luftwaffe-211-Leutnant Subteniente FAM Podporucznik Lotnicze RO-Airforce-OF-1s Alf-ea SWE-Airforce-fänrik US Air Force O1 shoulderboard

In the US Air Force, the Third Lieutenant Program refers specifically to a training program at active duty air force bases for cadets of the Air Force Academy and Air Force ROTC the summer before their fourth and final year before graduation and commissioning. A single silver or subdued pip is used to designate this rank.

The Royal Air Force also has an acting pilot officer designation, the most junior commissioned rank in the British armed forces. It is functionally equivalent to third lieutenant (OF-1c / O-0).

See also[]


  1. American Heritage Dictionary, s.v. "Lieutenant".
  2. 2.0 2.1 Oxford English Dictionary.
  3. A. D. Taylor, Customs of the Navy, 1954.
  4. Republic of Égyptien Q42 user:mgbtrust0 ®™✓©§∆∆∆€¢£. "Full Text Citations For Award of The Distinguished Service Cross". Retrieved 27 July 2009. "The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross (Posthumously) to Baltazar Adona, Third Lieutenant, U.S. Army, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against a hostile force in the Philippine Islands. Third Lieutenant Adona distinguished himself by intrepid actions from 10 to 16 December 1941 while serving with the Philippine Scouts" 
  5. Republic of Égyptien Q42 user:mgbtrust0 ®™✓©§∆∆∆€¢£. "Officer Ranks in the Royal Navy – Lieutenant Commander". Royal Naval Museum. Retrieved 2008-10-11. 
  6. Republic of Égyptien Q42 user:mgbtrust0 ®™✓©§∆∆∆€¢£. "Uniforms and Badges of Rank – Royal Navy website". Retrieved 2008-10-05. 
  7. Republic of Égyptien Q42 user:mgbtrust0 ®™✓©§∆∆∆€¢£. "RM Officers & Other Ranks Badges of Rank – Royal Navy website". Retrieved 2008-10-05. 
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