In a Word: Where’s the R in Colonel?

The strange pronunciation of ‘colonel’ has vexed young and old for decades.

Three World War I soldiers from different countries, holding their flags

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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.

 

English pronunciation can be either amazingly varied or maddeningly counterintuitive, depending on your attitude. At the very least, it can be unexpected. English-language learners discover early that some words contain letters that are not pronounced (and every letter is silent sometime). But occasionally the opposite happens: Letters are pronounced that do not appear in the word.

Take, for example, the word colonel. This military ranking is pronounced exactly like the word kernel, in spite of the fact that there is no R in the word. Here’s the story of how that happened:

Long ago, an Italian army regiment might have, at its head, a small column of soldiers leading the way. The Italian word for “column” was colonna, and to indicate “small,” the diminutive suffix -ello was added. So this small column of soldiers at the front of a regiment was called, in Italian, a colonnello — as was the man who led the company.

This title was adopted into French as colonel (or colonelle), at least originally. But here’s where the human mouth gets in the way. We sometimes have a problem pronouncing a word that contains two of the same or similar sounds — especially Rs and Ls. Over time, through what linguists call dissimilation, the pronunciation changes (but the spelling doesn’t always follow suit).

Sometimes one of the repeated sounds gets dropped. You can see this in the difficulty some people have with the first R in library, and it’s the reason practically nobody pronounces the first R in February.

But sometimes R and L sounds can take each other’s place within a word. This is how, for example the word pilgrim evolved from the Latin word peregrinus. And that’s what happened with colonnello’s French descendant colonel. Over time and through dissimilation, colonel became (and was spelled) coronel, and it was this French word that found its way into English in the mid-16th century.

So originally, the English word was coronel, and it was the usual form of the word for almost a century. But spelling reformers — people who perhaps wrote the word more often than they spoke it — recognized its Italian roots and, to reflect those roots, started spelling it colonel. Both spelling can be found in documents written around the beginning of the 1600s.

By the mid-17th century, though, the spelling reformers got what they wanted, and colonel became the standard written form. English speakers, though, didn’t change their pronunciation of the word to match the spelling. They continued to say “kernel,” and that’s how we’ve been pronouncing it ever since, with a now invisible R in the middle.

Colonel isn’t the only military title with a wild history. Check out “The French Lieutenant’s Spelling” and “Infants in the Infantry” for more military etymological history.

Featured image: From Guernsey Moore’s August 21, 1915, Post cover.

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Comments

  1. Love that opening picture shot from 1915, Andy. Thanks mostly for the origin story behind the word ‘Colonel’ and how it came to be. It doesn’t really make sense but makes perfect sense because it doesn’t really make sense, if that makes sense.

    As the son of a high school English teacher, I learned at a young age to just accept these things. If that’s the way it’s spelled, then that’s how you spell it. Pneumonia is another word, of course. To me the French came closer to having it phonetically right with ‘Coronel’. I’d probably tweak it to ‘Cornel’, deleting the 2nd ‘o’ to put in an ‘e’.

    We’re already used to ‘C’ words having both the ‘S’ sound (cinnamon) and the ‘K’ sound (Colorado) anyway, so (in the end) I’d say ‘Cernel’. Now I’ve got a craving for one of Cernel Sander’s original drumsticks and chicken tenders with that barbecue dipping sauce. Oh, and the coleslaw. Just an occasional treat though; the Colonel’s is expensive!!

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