One of the mysteries of the English language finally explained.
The chief centurion of the first maniple of the third rank in a legion. In extended use: any leading figure in a movement, cause, protest, etc. (now rare).
Early 17th century; earliest use found in Philemon Holland (1552–1637), translator. From classical Latin prīmipīlus chief centurion of the first maniple of the third rank in a legion, senior centurion of the legion from prīmus + pīlum, in form probably after prīmī pīlī centuriō centurion of the prīmum pīlum, the first maniple of the third rank. Compare Italian primipilo.
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