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Q From Rocky Hitchcock: Members of my wife’s online quilt workshop were discussing the different pronunciations of lieutenant. Can you add to or clear up the confusion?

A I’d rather not add to it. There’s been more than enough head-scratching down the years about why Americans say it as /ljuːˈtɛnənt/ Help with IPA (roughly as lju'tenant) or luːˈtɛnənt (loo'tenant) while British and Commonwealth people prefer /lɛfˈtɛnənt/ (lef'tenant). The Royal Navy and Commonwealth navies have had a third way of saying it, a half-swallowed /lˈtɛnənt/ (l'tenant); I’m told this was mainly a lower-deck form and has now largely gone out of use.

Like other military words (army, captain, corporal, sergeant and soldier), lieutenant came into English from Old French after the Norman Conquest. It’s from lieu, meaning “place” (ultimately from Latin locus), plus tenant, holding. A lieutenant is a place-holder, a person who at need fulfils the role of a more senior one or who functions as his deputy. He acts — one might say — in lieu of another, where in lieu now means “instead” but could equally be construed as “in the place of”. As an example, the Lieutenant Governor of New York, David Paterson, automatically replaced Governor Eliot Spitzer when the latter had to resign in March 2008. Lieutenant is closely related in origin and meaning to locum tenens for a person who stands in temporarily for someone else of the same profession, such as a cleric or doctor.

On etymological grounds, therefore, the pronunciation ought to be like lieu, which suggests that Americans are nearer saying it “correctly”. But historical evidence shows that we English early on adopted the way of saying the word which is still our standard one, that this was taken by colonists to the US and that it was only in the nineteenth century in that country that it slowly changed to its modern pronunciation.

Some writers have suggested early readers misread u as v. This is plausible, since in fourteenth-century English, when lieutenant first appeared in the written language, a distinction between the two letters didn’t yet exist and they were interchangeable. However, the Oxford English Dictionary says that the theory doesn’t fit the facts. A medieval form lueftenant is known (for example in a letter of 29 May 1447 in the records of the Fribourg canton, Switzerland, which was signed by Ly Leuftenant douz Chastellent Davenche; Fribourg is one area which the French-related language survives that’s called variously Franco-Provençal, Romand, Burgundian or Arpitan; other examples are known from the same canton). This matches a Scots spelling of the fifteenth century and it may be that English speakers picked up this variant way of saying the word. Or they may have heard the glided sound at the end of lieu when it appeared in compounds as a v or an f.

Early spellings like leef-, lyff- and leif- show that writers were trying to record a pronunciation rather like the now-standard British one; others like lyeu- and lew- suggest that the other form was also around, most probably modelled on the common French pronunciation. The spelling settled on lieutenant only in the seventeenth century.

The change to the American /lju/ or /luː/ versions might have been the result of a speak-as-you-spell movement but, if that were the case, why did it happen in the US and not in the UK? Step forward Noah Webster. He advocated spelling and pronunciation reform and was highly influential through the enormous popularity of his American Spelling Book of 1788, which sold more than 60 million copies down the years. In his famous dictionary of 1828, he said the word should be said as “lutenant”.

Others also felt that the usual pronunciation of the word should be deplored as a corruption and ought to be corrected. John Walker wrote in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of 1791, “the regular sound, as if written Lewtenant, seems not so remote from the corruption as to make us lose all hope that it will in time be the actual pronunciation”. But it was only slowly adopted in the US. In 1838 James Fenimore Cooper argued in The American Democrat, “there is not sufficient authority” for the version that had been advocated by Walker and Webster and “the true pronunciation” was the British one. But then, he said that cucumber should be said as /ˈkaʊkʌmbə(r)/ (cowcumber) and gold as /ˈɡuːld/ (goold), old-fashioned British and American pronunciations. By 1893 Funk’s Standard Dictionary in the US was able to note that the /lɛfˈtɛnənt/ pronunciation was “almost confined to the retired list of the navy”, indicating that Walker and Webster had triumphed.

[Many thanks to Douglas G Wilson for his help in research.]

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Page created 19 Apr 2008