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What does pulled rank mean?

"Don't worry about it," Mulder said, "we'll take the heat. You can tell him we pulled rank."

She's the producer on this picture, but she never at any time made you feel that you should keep your place. I'm not talking about me, I'm talking about anybody, the lowliest of jobs. She never pulled rank on anybody, which is hard. —Sandra's secret side, Juliann Garey.

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The meaning can be found in any dictionary, as I quote in my answer below. Is there something more specific to your question? – F'x Feb 16 '11 at 21:34
I tagged the question with usage. – kiamlaluno Feb 16 '11 at 21:42
up vote 12 down vote accepted

To pull rank means to make something happen or to override a decision made by others, based solely on the fact that you are in a position with greater authority. For example, when a group of army officers gets together and wants to decide where to go for lunch, all the lieutenants can say "let's go to restaurant X"; but the captain can pull rank and say "no, we're going to Y because I want to."

It generally has a negative connotation that someone is doing something because it appeals to them personally, rather than because the decision makes logical sense within whatever bureaucratic structure has granted them authority; often the decision may fly in the face of the greater good.

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The New Oxford American Dictionary says:

pull rank: take unfair advantage of one's seniority or privileged position.

The “unfair” connotation is not always very strong, however, and to explain it in my own words, I would say “use one’s hierarchical rank to assert one's authority”.

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It can also mean to force your decision via your rank, without being unfair. Like if you ask a subordinate to do something, but they do not want to, then you can say "Don't make me pull rank." - meaning that the senior person will make it an order if necessary. – Orbling Feb 17 '11 at 1:07

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