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)?

  • 15
    And don't get me started on the British and Canadian pronunciation of lieutenant ;-)
    – ghoppe
    Jan 24, 2011 at 21:51
  • 2
    @ghoppe, but only in the army and the air force; not the navy. Jan 24, 2011 at 22:55
  • Sub-lieutenant Hooper, you are on a charge! May 8, 2011 at 17:46
  • 1
    is it only me or do you hear "kernel" when this word is spoken in the US?
    – bla
    Jan 30, 2014 at 4:24
  • 1
    @BrianHooper, how would a person of that naval rank be addressed by a colleague in their army? Apr 30, 2021 at 23:56

2 Answers 2


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.


  • 2
    Collenella meaning 'column', i.e. column of troops. So a colonel is a commander of a column.
    – user3444
    Jan 24, 2011 at 22:06
  • 7
    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, 2011 at 22:52
  • 3
    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 ;-).)
    – apaderno
    Jan 26, 2011 at 14:16
  • @kiamlaluno Perhaps it was different in the 16th Century?
    – Jay
    Jan 26, 2011 at 14:36
  • @Jay: the word was colonnello also in the 16th Century.
    – apaderno
    Jan 26, 2011 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.

  • 1
    why change the spelling?
    – user4951
    Jul 23, 2019 at 18:40
  • @user4951, See my answer below. Jul 18, 2020 at 21:17

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