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ech·​e·​lon ˈe-shə-ˌlän How to pronounce echelon (audio)
: an arrangement of a body of troops with its units each somewhat to the left or right of the one in the rear like a series of steps
: a formation of units or individuals resembling such an echelon
geese flying in echelon
: a flight formation in which each airplane flies at a certain elevation above or below and at a certain distance behind and to the right or left of the airplane ahead
: any of several military units in echelon formation
also : any unit or group acting in a disciplined or organized manner
served in a combat echelon
: one of a series of levels or grades in an organization or field of activity
involved employees at every echelon
: a group of individuals at a particular level or grade in an organization or field of activity
the upper echelons of management


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echeloned; echeloning; echelons

transitive verb

: to form or arrange in an echelon

intransitive verb

: to take position in an echelon

Did you know?

Echelon comes from scala, a Latin word meaning "ladder" that is also the source of French eschelon, meaning "rung of a ladder." Over time, the French word came to mean "step," "grade," or "level." English borrowed the word and upped its meaning to "a level or category within an organization or group of people."

Example Sentences

Noun the lower echelons of the bureaucracy We heard stories of corruption in the upper echelons of the firm.
Recent Examples on the Web
Leo, a New Jersey Roman Catholic and grandson of an Italian immigrant who worked for Brooks Brothers, hobnobs around the upper echelons of American power in natty suits with vests and a pocket watch on a gold chain. Nina Burleigh, The New Republic, 16 May 2023 Verdugo and Yoshida are in the top-10 in the early batting race featuring nine AL East players in the upper echelon so far. Larry Fleisher, Forbes, 7 May 2023 The run is not only his biggest yet, but one that firmly places him in the elite echelon of electronic artists who can play arenas, stadiums and amphitheaters, venues that few acts in this genre ultimately reach. Rachel Narozniak, Billboard, 3 May 2023 At a time when segregation was still widespread and Black faces were still a rarity on screens large and small, Mr. Belafonte’s ascent to the upper echelon of show business was historic. Peter Keepnews, New York Times, 25 Apr. 2023 He’s got an opportunity right now to get ready to join the top echelon of superstars, but that means making the guys around him better. Greg Moore, The Arizona Republic, 17 Mar. 2023 In a Western Conference that’s seemingly wide-open, the Mavericks have now made a move that could separate them from the middle of the pack and push them toward the upper echelon of contenders in the West. Dallas News, 6 Feb. 2023 But the way the Crimson Tide were run out of the gym by Oklahoma, which is most assuredly not among the Big 12’s upper echelon this season, had to be quite vexing for coach Nate Oats and his staff as the team was completely uninterested in playing defense. Eddie Timanus, USA TODAY, 30 Jan. 2023 Few reach the highest echelons of American politics without leaving a record to be examined. Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times, 9 May 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'echelon.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History



French échelon, literally, rung of a ladder, from Old French eschelon, from eschele ladder, from Late Latin scala

First Known Use


1796, in the meaning defined at sense 1a(1)


circa 1860, in the meaning defined at transitive sense

Time Traveler
The first known use of echelon was in 1796


Dictionary Entries Near echelon

Cite this Entry

“Echelon.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 3 Jun. 2023.

Kids Definition


: a formation of units (as troops or airplanes) resembling a series of steps
also : a unit in such a formation
: one of a series of levels especially of authority
involved officials at every echelon
also : the people who are at such a level
the upper echelons of the government

More from Merriam-Webster on echelon

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