This story is about ranks, and we will work our way to the highest echelons of the military, but it is proper to begin with sergeant. The family name Sargeant ~ Sargent has a after s but is pronounced like sergeant. Such a trifle would not attract anyone’s attention (after all, this is English) if the same variation (er ~ ar) did not occur so often, sometimes reflected in the spelling, sometimes disguised by it. Consider Berkeley (the North American place name) and the philosopher’s name Berkeley (the latter is pronounced Barkley); University, as opposed to ‘varsity; parson, derived from person (Latin persona); clerk (rhyming in American English with jerk), Derby, and merchant versus Clark, Darby and Marchant, among many others. The very name of the letter r does not begin with e, like ef, el, em, en, and es (it should have been homonymous with err rather than are). English spelling is so erratic that we do not notice the oddity of beard, heard, and hearth having different vowels but the same -ear- in the middle. The change of er to ar is at least 500 old. Like all changes in pronunciation, it was “vulgar” when it surfaced and has therefore proved ineradicable. Some words succumbed to it but the Standard enforced the conservative variant. For example, learn and heard are no longer larn and hard (as they were for a long time). In other cases, spelling conformed to the new pronunciation, and we do not suspect that heart could have merged with hurt. Sergeant goes back to Old French sergeant ~ serjeant (Modern French sergent). Its root is serv-, so that sergeant comes out as an etymological doublet of servant (sergeant-at-law has retained the oldest meaning). The disappearance of -vi- in Latin servientem, the accusative of serviens “serving” and the etymon of sergeant, looks strange, but compare the development of Latin plovia “rain.” It changed to plovia; -v- was lost in it and -i- (pronounced like y in Engl. yea) “hardened” into j (as in Engl. John), whence French pluie and Italian pioggia, whereas Spanish has lluvia (from pluvia). Another pair is Latin cavea “stall, coop, hive, etc.,” presumably not related to cava “hollow pace” (Engl. cave), and its French continuation cage, from which English has cage. (Cavea must have had the diminutive form caveola, later gaviola “small cage”; Spanish gayola is close to this reconstructed form. Engl. jail/gaol and Spanish gayola are related, but it is hard to believe that both are akin to cavea and cage; yet they are.) You are surprised that a word designating a military rank did not turn out to be more steadfast (its spelling is archaic, but its pronunciation is modern). Wait until you read the history of colonel.
However, the most opaque item on our list is lieutenant. Those, who, like speakers of American English, say lootenant, will not object to its spelling once they learn (“larn”) that lieutenant has been borrowed from French and consists of two parts: lieu “place” and tenant “holder” (from Latin locum tenans, understood as “deputy, substitute”); even the word order–first the noun, then the attribute, as in court martial and heir apparent–betrays its place of origin. But the British pronunciation is leftenant, and f in the middle remains a puzzle, the more so because, according to an authoritative British English pronouncing dictionary, published in the fifties of the past century, until recently the usual pronunciation of lieutenancy in the navy was lootenancy (stress on the second syllable) or lootnancy, while lieutenant was pronounced leftenant in the army and letenat in the navy, though the variant with f also had some currency among sailors. As early as the 14th century, spellings with leef- ~ leeu- began to turn up, and they reflected a pronunciation that can be accounted for in only two ways: either Old French also sometimes had f ~ v (from the w-sound) or folk etymology affected the word’s form. Folk etymology is a usual suspect in such cases. For instance, German Leutnant owes its spelling to an association with Leute “people.” But in English only leeful “permissible, lawful; just” has the same beginning as leeftenant, and it seems hazardous to connect them. Even less credible is the old conjecture that the letter -u- in lieutenant was misread as v. The possibility of confusion between u and v needs no proof, but why should it have had such dire consequences for the oral form of the word? Leeftenaunt (not leevtenaunt!) occurred in a text of 1378. The phonetic explanation (f ~ v from w) carries more conviction. Apparently, two forms have competed in the language for centuries. One was preferred in the army, the other in the navy (a common occurrence). Those who colonized the New World must have brought the f-less variant with them. A good deal of trouble would have been avoided if the English had followed the example of the Italians and abridged the word to tenente, for then there would have been no problem.
Now to colonel, a homonym of kernel. The earliest (mid-sixteenth-century) recorded form is coronel; it modified its spelling in imitation of French colonel. The etymology is not in doubt: a colonel is the leader of the column at the head of the regiment. So why coronel? In words like colonel, which have two identical consonants, one of them occasionally changes as the result of what linguists call dissimilation, the sequences l-l and r-r being especially vulnerable. As a result, r and l play leapfrog in many languages. Middle Engl. marbre (from French) yielded marble, purpuran, an oblique case of purpure, acquired the form purple (initially purpur- denoted the crimson color; not only pronunciations but also meanings change), and in dialects frail has been attested as a variant of the noun flail. Colonel became coronel in French (the form has not survived) and Spanish; a similar process happened in Portuguese. The influence of corona does not seem to be a factor in the history of this word. In the second part of the 18th century, curnel sounded “low” in comparison with colnel. Today the “low” pronunciation is the only one, but the spelling is genteel. A well-known scholar remarked in 1791: “This word is among those gross irregularities which must be given up as incorrigible.” And so be it.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”