Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Pronunciation: A salute to popcorn?

In a previous post (“Pronunciation: Left of centre or down the loo?”; 28 February 2012), I explored the etymological reasons lieutenant has two different pronunciations. I then got to wondering why colonel is pronounced kernel. Off I went once again to pore over the Oxford English Dictionary.

What many people don’t realize is that colonel comes from the sixteenth century coronel, from the French coronnel (also coronel, couronnel). The later French colonnel is itself taken from the Italian colonnello, colonello, denoting the chief commander of a regiment. The first company of a regiment or infantry was known as la compagnia colonella in Italian and as la compagnie colonnelle or, simply, la colonnelle in French. The colonel was so called because of his role as leader of the little column or company of soldiers at the head of a regiment.

Thus, the early French coronel (from which the Spanish coronel is also derived) was due to the dissimilation of ll, common in Romanic, although popular etymology associated it with corona (Fr.) and couronne (Sp.) crown. Coronel is still dialectal, but, late in the sixteenth century, it was supplanted in literary use by the more etymological colonnel. Therefore, under this influence and that of translations of Italian military treatises, colonel also appeared in English around 1580 and was the prevailing form until 1630, before disappearing from writing around 1650.

In the seventeenth century, colonell was trisyllabic and was often accented (in verse) on the last syllable. However, according to Dr. John Jones’s Practical Phonography (1701), it began, in 1669, to be reduced in pronunciation to two syllables, col'nel.

Nevertheless, the earlier coronel never died out of popular use. In his On Early English Pronunciation, Dr. A.J. Ellis cites Dyche (1710) for /ˈkʌrəʊnɛl/, Buchanan (1766) for /ˈkɔːnɪl/, and Sheridan (1780) for /ˈkɜːnɛl/, the pronunciation now established, although apparently not yet universal in 1816.

Just as lieutenant is used in compounds (e.g., lieutenant commander, captain-lieutenant), so, too, is colonel. In fact, if not the perfect marriage of military discipline and competence, the bumbling but lovable Henry Blake from TV’s M*A*S*H is, nevertheless, a lieutenant-colonel. Other compounds include colonel-general, as well as the now obsolete colonel-commandant and colonel-ensign.

Is it me, or do those sound like the fictitious military ranks Sector Admiral and Fleet Admiral common in science fiction? To heck with this whole colonel versus kernel thing: I’m going to go make some popcorn and watch some of the Star Trek movies on Netflix.


Those interested in learning more can refer to The Story of English, a book by Robert MacNeil, Robert McCrum and William Cran. Twice revised since its original printing in 1986, the book details the development of the English language. Episodes of the nine-part, Emmy-award winning television series by the same name can be seen on YouTube.


  1. That's interesting. I always assumed the word 'colonel' came from the same source as 'colony', which comes from the Latin word colōnia - or 'settlement'. I guess I was wrong.

    Similarly, there is no connection between the word 'Colony' and the most famous colonizer of all time, Cristoforo Colombo, who was known to his Spanish employers as Cristóbal Colón. The man who gave his name to the modern country of Colombia and the province of British Columbia, among other places, was, rather ironically, named after the global symbol of peace, the dove. His legacy, of course, was anything but peaceful.

  2. Most interesting, Ben. Thanks for sharing that with me and other readers. With respect to Columbus, I'm assuming that you're referring to the 'Cristoforo/Christopher' (Christ-bearer) part. St. Christopher was venerated by Roman Catholics and is listed as a martyr and let's not forget the eponymous Knights of Columbus.

    It may interest you to know that the Spanish word for 'dove' is 'paloma'. Think Paloma Picasso or (oh, I'm dating myself here...) the song "Cucurucucu Paloma", popularized by the lovely Nana Mouskouri, among others.

  3. Interestingly, the city of Colombo (i.e. the Sri Lankan capital) got its name from the Portuguese in 1505 and is believed to be a corruption of the classical Sinhalese name Kolon Thota, which means 'port on the river Kelani'. Whether or not it had any link to the explorer who landed in the West Indies 12 years previous is unclear.