See more synonyms for echelon on
  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)
  1. to form in an echelon.

Origin of echelon

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
Related formsech·e·lon·ment, noun

Word story

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

—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.
Related Quotations
  • "Beyond [the city] were the suburban homes of laborers and low-echelon executives who had carved brass-knuckled niches for themselves in the medium-income bracket."
    -Irving E. Cox, Jr. The Cartels Jungle (1955)
  • "If a CEO wavers and shows signs of not being confident of which way he wants to go, it sends shudders from the top echelon all the way down the mountain."
    -D. A. Benton How to think like a CEO (2000)
  • "[I]t is a monstrous leap from what [a master] can do to what the elite grandmasters (the Fischers and the Karpovs and the Kasparovs) can do, which is why even the top echelon of players often maintain a base of humility beneath their bluster."
    -Michael Weinreb Game of Kings: A Year Among the Geeks, Oddballs, and Geniuses Who Make Up America's Top High School Chess Team (2007)
  • "By echelon we mean a formation in which the subdivisions are placed one behind another, extending beyond and unmasking one another either wholly or in part."
    -James Alfred Moss Manual of Military Training (1914)
  • "[T]hey echeloned to the right around the hill, and the 1st Platoon fired into their flank for ten to fifteen minutes; however, they never slacked or broke formation."
    -William T. Bowers The Line: Combat In Korea, January–February 1951, Volume 1 (2008) Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018

Related Words for echelon

degree, string, office, grade, rank, queue, place, file, tier, position, line, row

Examples from the Web for echelon

Contemporary Examples of echelon

  • The view may look bright at the top GOP echelon, but that does not appear to be the attitude of the rank and file.

    The Daily Beast logo
    Why the GOP Should Panic

    Matt Latimer

    November 7, 2011

  • The echelon below were 18-year-old Olders, overseeing Babies and Tinies as young as 10 in the final rung.

    The Daily Beast logo
    A Tinderbox Waiting for a Match

    Gavin Knight

    August 11, 2011

  • I think Tina is the first woman who has gotten into that echelon.

    The Daily Beast logo
    TV's Funniest New Moms

    Kara Cutruzzula

    March 24, 2009

Historical Examples of echelon

British Dictionary definitions for echelon


  1. a level of command, responsibility, etc (esp in the phrase the upper echelons)
  2. military
    1. a formation in which units follow one another but are offset sufficiently to allow each unit a line of fire ahead
    2. a group formed in this way
  3. physics a type of diffraction grating used in spectroscopy consisting of a series of plates of equal thickness arranged stepwise with a constant offset
  1. to assemble in echelon

Word Origin for echelon

C18: from French échelon, literally: rung of a ladder, from Old French eschiele ladder, from Latin scāla; see scale ³
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for echelon

1796, "step-like arrangement of troops," from French échelon "level, echelon," literally "rung of a ladder," from Old French eschelon, from eschiele "ladder," from Late Latin scala "stair, slope," from Latin scalae (plural) "ladder, steps," from PIE *skand- "to spring, leap" (see scan). Sense of "level, subdivision" is from World War I.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper