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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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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 27 Mar. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-col1.htm
Last modified: 27 March 1999.