echelon [ esh-uh-lon ]
1. a level of command, authority, or rank: After years of service, she is now in the upper echelon of city officials.
2. a level of worthiness, achievement, or reputation: studying hard to get into one of the top echelon colleges.
3. Military. a formation of troops, ships, airplanes, etc., in which groups of soldiers or individual vehicles or craft are arranged in parallel lines, either with each line extending to the right of the one in front (right echelon) or with each line extending to the left of the one in front (left echelon), so that the whole presents the appearance of steps.
4. Military. one of the groups of a formation so arranged.
5. Archaic. any structure or group of structures arranged in a steplike form.
6. Also called echelon grating. Spectroscopy. a diffraction grating that is used in the resolution of fine structure lines and consists of a series of plates of equal thickness stacked in staircase fashion.
verb (used with or without object)
7. to form in an echelon.
OTHER WORDS FROM ECHELON
WORDS RELATED TO ECHELON
degree, string, office, grade, rank, queue, place, file, tier, position, line, row
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HISTORICAL USAGE OF ECHELON
Echelon comes from the French échelon, a word whose literal meaning is “rung of a ladder.” Initially it was confined to military use, to refer to a step-like formation of troops.
Ironically, while echelon entered English in a military context, it was the first and second World Wars that extended the meaning to other, nonmilitary, sectors. During World War I, the term took on a more generalized sense of a “level” or “subdivision”; World War II broadened echelon’s usage to describe grades and ranks in professions outside the military.
At the same time, English speakers started using echelon to classify institutions or persons they held in high esteem by referring to them as part of the “upper” or “top” echelon. With this in mind, the phrase “social climber” conjures up the image of people who wish to ascend through the various ladder rungs of society until they reach the top.
POPULAR REFERENCES FOR ECHELON
—Row echelon form: In linear algebra, a simplified form of a matrix in which each non-zero row has more leading zeros than the previous row.
—ECHELON: Code name of a global surveillance system developed by the United States National Security Agency (NSA). It operates by intercepting and processing international communications transmitted via communications satellites.
—Third Echelon: A fictional sub-group of the NSA created by Tom Clancy in his Splinter Cell book series.
Origin: 1790–1800; < French échelon, orig. rung of a ladder, Old French eschelon, equivalent to esch(i)ele ladder (< Latin scāla; see scale3) + -on noun suffix
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