colonel

One of the more common questions posed by readers of this site is where does the word colonel come from and why is the pronunciation so at odds with the spelling?

Colonel is originally Italian, a colonello being the commander of a military column, or in Italian colonna. The French adopted the military rank, and in so doing switched the L for R (L/R switches are a common pronunciation shift), producing the French word coronel.

English adopted the French word, with an R spelling coronell in the mid-16th century. From a letter written by a T. Ellis in 1548:

Certen of the worthiest Almaynes at the desire of their coronell...reentred the same.

Starting in the late-16th century, translations of Italian military treatises started using the etymologically correct L spelling, and by the mid-17th century, colonel was the accepted English spelling. But the R pronunciation was firmly established and did not change. From Robert Barret’s The Theorike and Practike of Moderne Warres (1598):

In the time of...Henrie the eight...those were intituled Colonels, or as some will, Coronels, which the Spaniardes do call Maesters de Campo.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

Powered by ExpressionEngine
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton