The phrase "rank insubordination" is used at times (e.g. Washington Post, Salon.com, and University of East Anglia) to describe disregarding a superior's orders.

But what exactly is the rank for? It's obviously modifying insubordination, but rank has three senses that could be relevant. I am wondering which of them is intended by the phrase.

  • Is rank being used as an adjective meaning "foul or offensive"?
  • Is rank being used as an adjective meaning "flagrant"?
  • Is rank being used as a noun referring to one's position within a hierarchy?

Etymologically and in use, which sense is intended?

  • 2
    And that's how you show the research and explain where the confusion lies. Bravo editor.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Aug 30, 2023 at 14:21
  • I disagree. There is no evidence of actual research here, merely stabs in the dark at potential meanings without any reason for choosing those meanings.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Aug 31, 2023 at 18:28

1 Answer 1


You say you can't find any definition that fits, however most dictionaries include a fitting definition under the adjective rank.

The American Heritage Dictionary has it as:

Absolute; complete: a rank amateur; rank treachery. See Synonyms at flagrant.

Merriam-Webster as well:


a: shockingly conspicuous

must lecture him on his rank disloyalty— David Walden

b: outright

—used as an intensive

rank beginners

Whenever rank insubordination is used, it's pretty clear that rank is a synonym of flagrant, outright, shockingly conspicuous. E.g.:

The spat between the IPS and cadre officers in the CRPF and BSF has become a ridiculous spectacle, a battle about naked ambition to corner top posts. It's been a wonder how the top brass of an armed force handling sensitive national security assignments has tolerated such rank insubordination. An inquiry is too mild a proceeding, in the army such actions lead to a court martial. (Comment at The Print)

“This looks like the last straw,” a seething President Harry Truman scrawled in his diary on April 6, 1951. Once again the commander of U.S. forces in the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur, had gone public with his differences with the commander in chief over the conduct of the war—this time in a letter to House Republican Leader Joseph Martin.

Truman thought it nothing less than “rank insubordination,” and five days later he delivered the shocking news to the American people that he had relieved MacArthur of his command and replaced him with General Matthew Ridgway. (History)

the City contended that the plaintiffs were terminated for "rank insubordination" (US Court of Appeals)

If any of these had rank as a noun, it would be entirely unnecessary as insubordination is always from a lower rank. Rank is clearly used to express the degree of the insubordination and hence fits the definitions cited.

  • 1
    Yet again, I find myself upvoting your answer while closevoting to migrate to English Language Learners Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 14:30
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers On this one, I'll agree that the asker should have done their research. Vote away!
    – DW256
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 14:34
  • The first sentence of this answer is incorrect. I didn't say that I couldn't find any definition that fit; I said that I found multiple definitions that plausibly fit, and I couldn't find any explanation of which one was correct. To your comment: I'm unclear on what additional research I could have done. I found the intensifier definition that you claim, but I don't see any evidence that that is a more plausible meaning than the two that I suggested.
    – tparker
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 1:56
  • Do you have any evidence for why your proposed meaning is any more likely than the two that I suggested?
    – tparker
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 2:02
  • @tparker The context in which rank insubordination is used makes it perfectly clear which of the definitions for rank is fitting. See examples.
    – DW256
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 4:24

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