• ensign •
Pronunciation: en-sên ; en-sain [2, 3] • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. [en-sên] The entry level rank of a commissioned officer in the US Navy. 2. [en-sain ] Insignia, a banner which identifies the country of origin of a ship, regiment, etc. 3. [en-sain ] An indicator, such as a badge indicating rank in the military.
Notes: Today's word is most widely used in the first sense by the military, though it reaches beyond that argot. It is pronounced differently depending on which meaning you intend (see Pronunciation). The office of an ensign in the first sense is an ensigncy and the state of being an ensign is ensignhood.
In Play: Perhaps the most famous ensign in the first sense of today's word was Ensign Pulver in the 1955 film Mr. Roberts. The second meaning of today's word is usually associated with ships: "What do you mean the ship carries a Hungarian ensign? Hungary is a landlocked country!" Finally, the third sense allows a wide range of figurative uses, for example: "There was a time in our history when we thought the beard was the ensign of manhood."
Word History: Today's Good Word exemplifies the efficiency with which English nicks the vocabulary of other languages. This word was copied by Middle English from Old French enseigne, which was legitimately inherited from Latin insigne "badge of office, mark". The plural of insigne was insignia, which English also copied into its own vocabulary directly from Latin. Insigne was obviously built upon Latin signum "sign, mark", which came down to French as signe. English borrowed this one, too, frailly attempting to disguise it by removing the E from its end. Latin inherited the original word, sekw- "to follow", incorporating it into a series of words meaning "follow", all of which English assimilated. We see them in sequence, sequel, subsequent, including sign, which originally was a mark to follow, like road signs. (Let's all offer Lynn Flake a sign of our gratitude for suggesting today's very Good Word.)