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Q From Gadi Rowelsky: Why is the word colonel pronounced kernel? What is the etymology of this word?

A It’s a messy story, the result of a confusion between two forms of the word that came into English at different times. Its source is the Italian colonna.

This, and our column with the same meaning, derive from the Latin columna, because a column of men was reminiscent of the shape of a pillar. There was a phrase in Italian, compagna colonnella, literally the “little-column company”, which referred to the small company of soldiers that marched at the head of a regiment and which was commanded directly by the officer in charge. So that officer became known as the colonnello, the leader of the little column.

This shifted into French as coronel but later changed back nearer the Italian original as colonel. Much the same thing happened in English, where coronel was the more common form up to about 1630. For a while after this date both forms were in use until colonel eventually won. At first the word was pronounced as three syllables, but the middle became swallowed, and under the continuing influence of the “r” spelling the “l” in the first syllable vanished.

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Page created 27 Mar 1999