Welcome to the Wordlady blog!

This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
You can also order my best-selling books, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs and Only in Canada You Say. Fun and informative!

Subscribe!

Subscribe! Fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox. IT'S FREE! Fill in your email address below.
Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Follow by email

Search This Blog

Friday, July 24, 2015

What the F is an F doing in "lieutenant"?

As I mentioned last week, as a result of my CBC interview about Stuart McLean's pronunciations of "schedule" and "raspberry", I've had a number of queries about other pronunciations. 

First up: lieutenant and colonel. 

LIEUTENANT comes from the two French words lieu (place) and tenant (holding), because literally a lieutenant is the person who would be holding his superior's place in the superior's absence. 

Now the question is, why do some people say lootenant and others leftenant? 

Lootenant is closer to the Old French pronunciation, but right from our earliest evidence, in the 1300s and 1400s, we have spellings that indicate that both pronunciations existed. Probably the English had a hard time pronouncing French, or they may have confused lieu with the English word they already knew, "leave" Or they confused the written "u" with a "v." 

For whatever reason, the "loo-" version died out of British English but survived in American English, which tends to maintain older pronunciations, for example "herb". Since Americans were the founders of Canadian English when the Loyalists moved here, we also inherited "lootenant" But the Canadian Forces have always been strongly influenced by the British, so leftenant is the official pronunciation there. When we researched the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, we discovered Canadians split about 50/50 over this pronunciation, with an edge for "lootenant", although people were likely to say "leftenant-governor" even if they otherwise said "lootenant"! Canadian English is not simple! What do YOU say?

COLONEL Why is it pronounced with an "r" even though there isn't one in the word?! English pronunciation must drive second-language learners mad! 

"Colonel" ultimately comes from Italian colonello meaning the commander of a company or "column" of infantry. When the French borrowed this word, they had a hard time saying "colonel" with two "l"'s (though they manage to do it now). So the first "l" got changed to an "r" and they ended up with coronel, which is what got borrowed into English in the 1500s and then scrunched down in the pronunciation to ker-nel. But then in the 1600s people looked at the origin of the word and changed the spelling back to "colonel" to reflect it, but the pronunciation stuck. 

P.S. If you find the English language fascinating, you might enjoy regular updates about English usage and word origins from Wordlady. Receive every new post delivered right to your inbox! If you are not already subscribed, you can either:

use the subscribe window at the top of this page
OR
(if you are reading this on a mobile device): send me an email with the subject line SUBSCRIBE at wordlady.barber@gmail.com

Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Follow me on twitter: @thewordlady



1 comment:

  1. This is great! I've wondered about both of these words.

    ReplyDelete

About Me

My photo
Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.