Wednesday, May 05, 2010

WNW: Why Is "Colonel" KER-nel?

After my post about lieutenant and why the English pronounce it with an F like luff-tenant (the post, by the way, that sparked Word Nerd Wednesday), several people asked a similar question about colonel:

Why is colonel pronounced with an R and TWO syllables instead of an L and three syllables?

At the time, I had no idea. I've since done some digging (thank you, OED and Professor Google, but mostly OED), and now I have an answer for people as nerdy as I am (ie anyone who loves weird language stuff).

First (of course), some history.

The term for the military rank we know as colonel comes from the commander of the regiment of the "little column," or the first company of a regiment. The French and Italian armies used their words for column, colonna and colonello/colonella, and the English adopted similar terms.

So at that point, army folks did use the L-sound when referring to the rank.

Thanks to something called dissimilation, some sounds change in words over time. (Remember how P changed to F in many old words like pater --- father and pisk --- fish?)

Same thing happened with R changing to L. For example, the French word marbre underwent dissimilation with the last R and became the English marble.

Moving back to colonel.

Because of dissimilation, the middle L in colonel took on the sound of R for some people. The English used both colonel (a word with THREE syllables and an L-sound) and coronel interchangeably for quite some time.

The distinction between R and L in some words didn't matter; both were used in this case and accepted as correct.

It wasn't until after 1650 that the spelling of coronel finally lost popularity in the written word, in favor of colonel. But both pronunciations (both L and R, with 3 syllables to the word) were still used verbally. COL-o-nel and COR-o-nel.

By the end of that century (again, as is typical in language), the word was often shortened in speech to two syllables, but still with the L-sound.

So we had:
KUL-nel instead of KUL-o-nel

AND

KER-nel instead of KER-o-nel).

By 1816, three things had happened:
  • the two-syllable version had taken over as the favorite KUL-nel/KER-nel
  • the spelling was standardized with the L (No more coronel. Just colonel.)
  • the pronunciation stuck with the dissimilated R.
Tada! Today we have COLONEL pronounced as KER-nul.

(I don't remember who first asked, but thanks for the question!)

9 comments:

Liz H. Allen said...

Wow, I loved this post. It is so interesting to me. Thank you for doing this and I look forward to more Word Nerd Wednesdays.

Kristina P. said...

So interesting! I've always wondered this too.

Rebecca said...

That is very interesting. I wondered why we pronounce it that way!

My second son always looks at me with a bit of disgust when he comes across a word like that. (He's very logical.) I just tell him, "It's one of those crazy words that don't make any sense being spelled that way."

We have a lot of those in our language!

Melanie J said...

I know I'm one of the people who asked this question so thanks for the answer!

Lara said...

This is one of those I've always wondered about.

Although, I was just watching Murder on the Orient Express and they said it just how it's spelled: "col-o-nel" The guy was British though, but it sounds like they should have done a bit more research on the word, since it took place in 1930-ish.

Myrna Foster said...

Cool. I love stuff like this.

Sher said...

I've always wondered about this. I didn't actually think there was an explanation, though.

Wow, you are infinite in your wisdom.

Rebecca said...

Oh, I have a couple of suggestions for more WNW.

Parentheses. How we punctuate inside and out. When should you punctuate inside them, and how?

The phrase "Happy birthday". I see it all the time as "Happy Birthday" when people are wishing it to each other on Facebook. Am I wrong in thinking the 'b' shouldn't be capitalized because "birthday" isn't a proper noun? We say "Merry Christmas" and "Happy Easter", but I've never seen "birthday" capitalized as a proper noun.

There. Now you have some more to address--like you really needed more, right? :D

Kimberly said...

Oh how you slake my nerdy thirst. Brilliant researching!

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