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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. 

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

  2. my mother to her dying day put the F in lieutenant. You mentioned the influence of the British on the Canadian armed forces. My mother spent some time in her formative years working at the airport in Dorval (Montreal) working for the airforce there. It must have had an influence on her; perhaps also the fact that her father, a Scottish immigrant, also served in the British army in WWI. i don't recall anyone else that used that pronunciation except actual British folks on TV.


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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.