The word "sergeant" comes from the French word "sergent," meaning "a servant, valet or court official," which in turn derives from the Latin word "serviens," which also means "servant" or "soldier." The English first borrowed the word from the French in the late 13th century to refer to both military servants who accompanied knights and those in charge of enforcing tribunal judgments.

Medieval Sergeants

Sergeants who accompanied knights were generally mounted soldiers who lacked the means to purchase the equipment and hire the retainers necessary to be recognized as knights in their own right. A knight's sergeants held a variety of duties, ranging from tending to and fighting alongside the knight during combat to pressing and leading groups of peasants into battle. In this context, the term sergeant became associated with a leader who trained and disciplined soldiers.

The Modern Sergeant

The role and rank of sergeant evolved as modern armies developed. The rank of sergeant as a non-commissioned officer -- experienced enlisted soldiers given leadership responsibilities -- was gradually adopted by all major European armies, beginning in the 16th century. The U.S. Army and Marine Corps included various types of sergeants in their ranks from their inceptions in 1775. Likewise, the U.S. Air Force retained the term sergeant for its NCO corps when it was separated from the Army in 1947.