I will never forget writing the Culper Ring Series, in which I had a prominent character named Fairchild, and growling incessantly over trying to remember how to spell his rank: lieutenant colonel. My critique partner and I joked about it and started typing it (in chat only, not in the manuscript!) as lootenant kernel instead. (Makes you want popcorn, doesn’t it?)

And yet I’d never actually paused to ask WHY we have such strange spelling/pronunciation of colonel. I’d just chalked it up to military weirdness, I guess, and left it at that.

The actual history, though, is quite interesting.

The word began seeing use in English in the 1540s, but it was taken from the French variation, which is coronel. The Italian spelling, however, is colonnella. They all come from the Latin columna, which of course means “a column or pillar.” A colonel/coronel, then, is someone in charge of a column or regiment.

By the late 1500s, English military folk decided they preferred the Italian spelling–maybe it was more fashionable to imitate the Italians than the French at that time in history? England and France had a rather, er, tense history, after all… Regardless, we began spelling it colonel instead of coronel. Until around 1650, either pronunciation–the “l” or the “r” were deemed acceptable. But then the earlier French pronunciation won out…even though the Italian spelling became standard.

So there we have it. An Italian spelling with a French pronunciation for a Latin root, all of which share a meaning, just to confuse poor school children and writers for the rest of time. 😉

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