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While Americans (and possibly others) pronounce this as "loo-tenant", folks from the UK pronounce it as "lef-tenant".

Why?

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I'll just note the UK pronunciation you cite is not 100% prevalent in the UK, I've known more than a few Brits that pronounced it the same way Americans do. Maybe that was just RAF folks being corrupted by USAF folks while here in the states, I dunno. –  cabbey Feb 11 '11 at 5:39
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The members of the Army and Royal Air Force say "lef-tenant", but in the Royal Navy that's a solecism ("loo-tenant" there). –  Brian Hooper Feb 11 '11 at 7:08
    
@BrianHooper I am not sure that is exactly correct. I recall when joining the Canadian Navy back in the seventies that the pronunciation was more like "le tenant" or "luh tenant", not sure how to write it, and followed Royal Navy usage, so it was essentially a third way to pronounce the word. By the way I was a sub-lieutenant so did pay some attention to how to pronounce and especially how the captain pronounced it... certainly never leftenant or lootenant.... –  William Oct 19 '11 at 2:04
    
@BrianHooper Every member of the Royal Navy I've met (a considerable number, from a wide variety of branches) has pronounced it 'lef-tenant'. –  dbmag9 Apr 18 at 12:38
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@dbmag9, I stand corrected. –  Brian Hooper Apr 19 at 9:02

5 Answers 5

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Etymonline indicates that spelling with lef- dates to the 14th century, but that the origins of that spelling (and presumably its associated pronunciation) are “mysterious”. The word comes originally from Old French, and according to the OED, Old French replaced word- and syllable-final [w] with [f]; for the Modern French word lieu, this is shown by an Old French spelling variant luef. Both forms, whyever they exist, just happened to stick.

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It's not just French dialects: consider modern French "neuf" ("nine") < "novem", "neuf" (new) < "novum", "boeuf" ("bull") < "bovem", "naïf" ("naive") < "nativum". –  Colin Fine Feb 11 '11 at 13:09

en.wiktionary.org claims that leftenant is an archaic spelling of lieutenant.

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The different pronunciation started sometime after England was first at war with France from 1337 to 1453. The politicians and the public wanted nothing that sounded French. They also changed German Shephard dog to Alsatian.

However, we have been at war with the Dutch and still use some Dutch expressions like Dutch courage, go Dutch, Dutch yaw and Double Dutch.

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While it will always remain a mystery, I think that this goes back to the OF pronunciation of "lieu" to sound like "lyeuch". Then "lieutenant" would have the pronunciation of "lyeuchtenant". Later, when the drive by the English to rid the language of french words began, they modified the word to try to match their pronunciation and made it "leftenant". Even later, when the Americans cuddled up to the French during the revolutionary war, their pronunciation changed to follow the french term. I'll bet George Washington used the English term at the beginning.

Of course- this is opinion and I have been wrong before. It was in 1950 I believe...

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Welcome to EL&U. I encourage you to visit the help center. Speculative answers are generally frowned upon, as this is a Q&A site, not a discussion forum, and so answers should be definitive. –  choster Apr 18 at 14:37

Lieu from french shows up in English phrases like "in lieu of" meaning "in place of", so lieu means place and lieutenant essentially means placeholder. There is a rarely used word, lief, which I see in old books in phrases like "I'd as lief jump off this wall as ..." and I think it is another spelling and pronunciation of lieu. I think the "lef-tenant" pronunciation comes from that lief which was no doubt interchangeable with lieu at some point in the past.

BTW Canadians technically say lef-tenant though many ordinary folks say it the US way because that's what we hear on TV.

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No, "lief" is a different word, akin to "love" (German "Lieb"). –  Colin Fine Feb 11 '11 at 13:04

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