Evolution of a word: Does “general” mean common or superior?

July 30th, 2009 by xgz

The word “general” originally is derived from Latin “generalis” which in turn is derived from “genus”. Genus means birth, descent, or origin. It also means kind or sort. It is this second meaning that generalis is derived from. Generalis means applicable to all, as opposed to specialis (which is derived from “species” and means “particular”). So in English “general” has the meaning of common, overall, and not specialized. For example, “general psychology” would be an overview of the basic concepts in psychology, and would not teach specialized topics. It could might as well be called “common psychology”. In Chinese translations, the underlying meaning of “common” is also often retained. “General psychology” is 普通心理学, which is indeed “common psychology”. “General Motors” is translated as 通用汽车, which really means “commonly-used cars”.

A second meaning of “general” is that of a commander of an army. This is a derived meaning from the shortened “Captain General”. This meaning has also been in use for centuries. However, there is usually no confusion between the two meanings. No one would mistake “general psychology” for the psychological study of army generals.

More recently, another usage has become more common (or should I say more general). And it threatens to blur the two different meanings of “general”. This usage is similar to the usage of “Captain General”. We have the “Secretary General” of the United Nation, “general secretary” of the communist party, and “general manager” of a company. In this usage, “general” is used to denote a superior rank. Thus, a general secretary has a higher rank than other secretaries, and a general manager has a higher rank than other managers. In Chinese translations, these are translated as 总书记 and 总经理. There is no trace of the meaning of “common” in both translations.

So in general, does “general” give you an impression of “common” or “higher rank”?

2 Responses to “Evolution of a word: Does “general” mean common or superior?”

  1. Avatarram

    To me, partly from my mathematics training, “general” suggests “common”. The rank usage is strange, given the normal meaning of the world. I didn’t know about the “captain general” origins of the military term, that’s interesting.

  2. AvatarLara

    The general manager manages everything – i.e., all aspects of an organization that are thrown into a “common” pot. Her superior rank comes from her command of the common. I bet a military general’s does, too.

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