This Is Why Colonel Is Pronounced That Way

When you understand the roots of the word, it actually makes sense.

If an alien landed on earth, learned to read English, and saw the word "colonel" on paper for the first time, he or she (or it!) might assume it sounds something like "cuh-luh-nel." Oh, how wrong our alien friend would be.

Instead, as we all know, it sounds more like something you get stuck in your teeth at the movie theater. Why does "colonel" sound like "kernel"?

The reasons are both more complicated and simpler than you might expect.

The word began logically enough. Rooted in the Latin word columna, or "column"—as in military column. This was adapted into the Italian compagna colonella for "little column company" then colonnella, which referred to a commander of the column of soldiers or head of a regiment. The big change happened around 1580 C.E. as the Middle French word for "colonel" became "coronel."

"We pronounce colonel with an 'r' because we borrowed it from Middle French, and Middle French pronounced and spelled it with an 'r'," says Carrie Gillon, co-founder of Quick Brown Fox Consulting, who holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and co-hosts linguistics podcast The Vocal Fries.

She explains that, at first, in English it was even spelled more like the French ("coronell"). By the mid-17th century, the French spelling shifted back to "colonnel"—and the English spelling followed suit.

"For some reason, the super well-educated people decided to spell it more like the Italian (which is where it was borrowed into French)," GIllon says. These "super well-educated people" were big fans of Latin and believed Italian was closer to Latin than French, so they went with the spelling that more closely mimicked Italian.

So why did the pronunciation of the "l" change into an "r"?

"In French, Italian 'colonnella' underwent a process called 'dissimilation'—making something less similar to something else," explains Gillon. "There are two l's in this word, and to make them less like one another, one of them was changed into an r."

She adds that this is a normal sound change that happens in language, and l's and r's are particularly susceptible to it.

"When English speakers borrowed it from French, the 'r' was already there, but both the 'l…l' and 'r…l' pronunciations were used—probably because of the Italian connection and spelling—but eventually the 'r…l' pronunciation won out."

The English pronunciation shortened the word to just two syllables and by the 19th century, "kernel" had become the standard American way to say the word, despite the fact that it sounded nothing like the word actually looked. And for some words you're definitely pronouncing wrong, check out 30 Super Common Brand Names You're Definitely Mispronouncing.

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Alex Palmer
Alex is a writer and expert excavator of fascinating facts. Read more