In a Word: The French Lieutenant’s Spelling

Lieutenant can be a tough word to spell, but understanding how it breaks down etymologically may help you remember.

Photo of a Navy Lieutenant saluting

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Lieutenant is a great spelling bee word — great in the sense that it’s hard to remember how to spell. But if you break it down etymologically into its constituent parts, it’s easier to remember. Lieutenant is simply lieu + tenant.

Although lieu isn’t an uncommon word in English, it doesn’t get a lot of everyday use. We mostly find it in the phrase “in lieu of,” meaning “as a substitute for,” as illustrated in this statement by Watchmen creator Alan Moore: “While a truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power.” Lieu goes back to an Old French word meaning “place, position, rank,” derived from the Latin locum “a place,” which also gave use the words local and location.

We think of a tenant these days as someone who rents or leases their home, but the key part of being a tenant is that they hold or possess that real estate by contract. Like lieu, tenant came to English through Old French, ultimately from the Latin verb tenir “to hold.” The tenant is the holder of the dwelling.

Combine lieu “place” + tenant “holder” and you get lieutenant “placeholder.” The word entered English in the late 14th century as a title for someone who is a substitute or deputy of a higher authority — someone who can speak with the power of that higher authority in their absence.

We still see this sort of use in some government positions (e.g., lieutenant governor). And, of course, it’s used primarily in the armed forces: Lieutenant, ranked just below a captain, appeared as a military rank in the late 16th century, as the title of the person who commands the company in the captain’s absence. Modern military ranks also include lieutenant generals, lieutenant colonels, and lieutenant commanders, who fall just below generals, colonels, and commanders respectively.

So remembering that lieutenant splits neatly into two other words can help you spell it correctly — that is, if you can remember the order of the vowels in lieu and that tenant doesn’t have a double-N in the middle (a particularly difficult thing for David Tennant fans). So maybe it won’t help so much after all.

So, in lieu of memorizing the word’s etymology, you can use a mnemonic device I picked up years ago:

Imagine you’re having a picnic. As you’re setting out your delicious spread, you notice a line of ten ants marching across the blanket toward your potato salad. “Oh, no,” you say. “You’re not gonna take my food!”

The ants hear you and reply in one voice, “We’re not here to take your food! Honest!”

To which you reply, “That’s obviously a LIE, U TEN ANTs!”

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. slwilley: No one entirely sure why the British pronounce it that way. Some people believe that the U in the word might have been misinterpreted as a V (which makes some sense historically) and the V sound evolved into an F sound, but the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t support that theory. Another possibility is that an F-sounding version was adopted in another European language, and British soldiers learned the pronunciation from them (it was even spelled that way — there’s a document from 1447 that uses the spelling Leuftenant).

    Lastly, British citizens might have formed an Anglicized pronunciation based on what they THOUGHT they were hearing in the French. There are a lot of sounds that get glided over in French, and it isn’t heard to imagine hearing the word “lieutenant” and thinking that it was something like “lewvtenant” and then going from there.

    The “leftenant” pronunciation came to America, of course, and it’s largely thanks to Noah Webster and his American dictionary that we pronounce it the way we do today.

  2. What then accounts for the British pronunciation of lieutenant which sounds like, “Left-tenant”?

  3. This is one wild ride of an etymological excursion that should have every lieutenant taking a new look at his military status name. I think it’s a much fancier title than captain, but keep that between us.


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