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This comes from The Company Man from Herman Melville:

"Have you no charity, friend?" here in self-subdued tones, singularly contrasted with his unsubdued person, said a Methodist minister, advancing; a tall, muscular, martial-looking man, a Tennessean by birth, who in the Mexican war had been volunteer chaplain to a volunteer rifle-regiment.

I am wondering what the phrase "has been X to a Y" mean. Does it mean "was all manner of things from X to Y" or simply "had been X and then later Y"? I never heard the phrase "had been X to a Y" before.

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He had volunteered in the position of chaplain in that military regiment.

Since the function of "chaplain" is to minister "to" the religious and spiritual needs of the men in the regiment, the author used that preposition in his description of the man's job. I think he could have also said, "... volunteer chaplain with a volunteer rifle-regiment." or "... volunteer chaplain of a volunteer rifle-regiment."

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  • Oh my bad, I thought regiment meant soldier.
    – Sayaman
    Feb 17, 2019 at 0:21
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In this case "be X to Y" means "be appointed to (or occupy) a role as X to provide services to Y". My father was chief accountant to a college; I am piano player to a singing club; Mary Smith, who was good at garment design, went to Hollywood and became dressmaker to the stars. My uncle Stavros was hairdresser to the royal family of Greece.

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