I've said this plenty of times myself and have heard it elsewhere, but I did some minor research online and found nothing to indicate I got the phrase from somewhere particular or anything. Does anyone know perhaps where this phrase came from?

  • 1
    Dissent is straightforward; the ranks indicates the rank and file, the infantry (who organized on the battlefield/marched in rows, i.e. ranks and files) the lowest order of solider, the grunts. Who also happened to be the most populous. When they started to grumble, there might be a mutiny afoot.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 18, 2016 at 0:32
  • But that phrase is so particular, I don't see how it's origin is the basic definition.
    – user181413
    Jun 18, 2016 at 3:31
  • I don't understand what you mean. Origins are usually "basic definitions". That's how this phrase originated.
    – Dan Bron
    Jun 18, 2016 at 3:33
  • Good question. There are several spellings, Phrasefinder says 'Dissention in the ranks', meaning 'dissatisfaction with those in authority'.
    – Bookeater
    Jun 18, 2016 at 8:09
  • 1
    dissent is not dissension.
    – Lambie
    Feb 1, 2017 at 19:42

1 Answer 1


'Dissension in the ranks'

As Bookeater's comment above suggests, the most common form of this wording is probably "dissension in the ranks." It is also the earliest form of the four I included in a Google Books/Ngram search. Here is the Ngram chart for the period 1800–2000 for "dissent among the ranks" (blue line) versus "dissent in the ranks (red line) versus "dissension in the ranks" (green line) versus "dissention in the ranks" (yellow line):

The earliest confirmed Google Books match for any of these phrases is from Earl Philip Stanhope, History of England: From the Peace of Utrecht to the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, third edition, volume 2 (1841):

Before his departure for Richmond [in 1742], [Robert] Walpole had a considerable share in the choice of his successor. He was desirous to sow dissension in the ranks of his opponents, to continue the administration on the Whig basis, and, in case Pulteney should decline to be First Lord of the Treasury, to appoint Lord Wilmington. Such were his objects ; his means were influence over his Royal master.

Five additional unique matches for "dissension in the ranks" occur in material published between 1947 and 1860.

'Dissension among the ranks'

The phrase "dissension among the ranks" first appears in a Google Books search in The Fortnightly (1865) in the context of a domestic insurrection in Poland that occurred in 1863:

Microslawski, on the other hand, who has always been the evil genius of Poland, did nothing during the insurrection but sow dissension among the ranks of his countrymen, and give rise to as much mischief as the bitterest enemy of his country could have desired.

And second in Report of a Special Committee Appointed by the Washington Chamber of Commerce to Investigate the Milk Situation in the District of Columbia (1911), in the context of a medical dispute:

There has been considerable dissension among the ranks of physicians and sanitarians as to the communicability of tuberculosis to human beings from tuberculous animals, either through the medium of milk or the use of their flesh for human food, and numerous investigations have been in progress with a view to establishing the facts relating to this important subject.

The Ngram chart for "dissension in the ranks" (blue line) versus "dissension among the ranks" (red line) for the period 1800–2000 records some early false positives for both phrases but generally shows the idiomatic preference for the former over the latter in English writing:

'Dissension' versus 'dissent'

The notion of "sowing dissension" raises an important distinction between the nouns dissension and dissent. Here is how Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) defines the two words:

dissension also dissention n (14C) : DISAGREEMENT ; esp : partisan and contentious quarreling

dissent n (1585) : difference of opinion {heard voices of dissent at the meeting}: as a : religious nonconformity b : a justice's nonconcurrence with a decision of the majority ±called also a dissenting opinion c : political opposition to a government or its policies {attempts to suppress domestic dissent}

These definitions indicate that dissent often involves a more clearly elaborated opposition to a prevailing policy than dissension does. A political movement may express dissent in the form of speeches, manifestos, and symbolic political actions. But dissension more often involves internal discord—grumbling, extemporaneous criticism, and spontaneous refusal to cooperate with the prevailing authority than with a developed opposing argument to that authority.

In any case, dissension has been an observed phenomenon in military settings at least since the Iliad, in which Thersites, a common soldier in the Achaean army expresses the dissatisfaction that he and many other soldiers at the progress of the war against Troy and the unequal rewards and conditions of those engaged in it—only to be beaten by Odysseus for his insubordination. In his speech at the assembly, Thersites expresses dissent (although without much eloquence or intelligence, Homer assures us); but his real threat to the Achaean cause is the dissension his views promote, which is why the Achaean captains respond by attacking not his arguments but his social and intellectual inferiority (as well as his body)—in effect, his lack of standing to dissent.

'Dissent among the ranks'

As for the poster's question about the origin of the exact wording "dissent among the ranks," the earliest match that Google Books finds for that phrase is from a court ruling on a labor dispute, reported in Brotherhood of Railway and Steamship Clerks, Freight Handlers, Express, and Station Employes, Report of George M. Harrison, Grand President to the Eighteenth Regular Convention (1943):

In the absence of an extension, January 12, 1943, was the deadline for filing. Notwithstanding the fact that provisions for extending this time were included in the Act, no action was taken by either party so to extend the time, least of all the Brotherhood. Dissent among the ranks of the arbitrators voting in favor of the Brotherhood was primarily the cause of the delay.

This block of text is rather poorly worded in several ways, and I am not at all sure what "Dissent among the ranks of the arbitrators voting in favor" means. In my view, dissent is probably not an apt word choice given that the author (a judge) is applying it to people who voted the same way.

I recognize that judges (though not, as far as I know, arbitrators) may concur in a result while declining to subscribe to the majority or plurality opinion's reasoning in reaching it, and I'm aware that in complex cases judges may elect to concur in part and dissent in part in a multipart ruling. But all such dissents involve clearly delineated disagreements, whereas here the author seems to be suggesting a sort of general dissatisfaction—a state of affairs better described as dissension than as dissent. If the author did mean dissent in its basic "difference of opinion" sense, I don't understand his decision to call it "dissent among the ranks of the arbitrators" rather than simply "dissent among the arbitrators"—or for that matter why he used the word dissent (which can't easily escape the narrow meaning it normally possesses in the context of legal rulings) rather than the clearer word disagreement or the clearer phrase "difference of opinion."


I couldn't find any one early instance of "dissension in the ranks" that is clearly responsible for that wording's subsequent popularity as a descriptive phrase. It may be that Dan Bron's comment above is the limit of what we can conclude here: "Origins are usually 'basic definitions'. That's how this phrase originated."

  • dissension and dissent are very different. I wonder what you posted all that information about dissension.
    – Lambie
    Feb 1, 2017 at 19:40

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