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Why does the word colonel (as in military rank) have such a strange spelling compared to how it's pronounced (or vice versa, although I don't know how you would pronounce that)?

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And don't get me started on the British and Canadian pronunciation of lieutenant ;-) –  ghoppe Jan 24 '11 at 21:51
@ghoppe, but only in the army and the air force; not the navy. –  Brian Hooper Jan 24 '11 at 22:55
Sub-lieutenant Hooper, you are on a charge! –  TimLymington May 8 '11 at 17:46
is it only me or do you hear "kernel" when this word is spoken in the US? –  bla Jan 30 '14 at 4:24

2 Answers 2

up vote 17 down vote accepted

It comes from Italian military manuals, and the English spelling preserves the Italian form, colonnello. Two pronunciations coexisted; the r prevailed in English. Spanish took both the spelling and pronunciation: coronel.

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Collenella meaning 'column', i.e. column of troops. So a colonel is a commander of a column. –  user3444 Jan 24 '11 at 22:06
It'd be better to say that though it was originally spelt coronel and retains that pronunciation, the spelling was artificially changed during 16th-century spelling reform. –  Jon Purdy Jan 24 '11 at 22:52
The Italian word for colonel is colonnello, which comes from the Italian word colonna (column), which comes from the Latin columna. (My first language is Italian, so you can trust me on that ;-).) –  kiamlaluno Jan 26 '11 at 14:16
@kiamlaluno Perhaps it was different in the 16th Century? –  Jay Jan 26 '11 at 14:36
@Jay: the word was colonnello also in the 16th Century. –  kiamlaluno Jan 26 '11 at 14:43

As reported from the NOAD:

ORIGIN middle 16th Century: from obsolete French coronel (earlier form of colonel), from Italian colonnello (column of soldiers) from colonna (column) from Latin columna. The form coronel, source of the modern pronunciation, was usual until the middle 17th Century.

The word is pronounced in a strange way because it kept the old pronunciation, while the word changed spelling.

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protected by tchrist Feb 22 at 0:24

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