Q: How did a “colonel” in the military come to be pronounced like a “kernel” on an ear of corn?
A: The word for the military officer once had competing spellings as well as competing pronunciations. When the dust settled, it ended up being spelled in one way and pronounced in the other.
The word was actually “coronel” when it entered English in the mid-16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
Here’s the messy story of how a word once spelled “coronel” in English came to be spelled “colonel” and pronounced KER-nel.
English acquired the original “coronel” from the Middle French coronnel, which came from colonello, the Italian word for the commander of a regiment, the OED says.
Colonello is derived from colonna, Italian for a column, which in turn comes from columna, Latin for a pillar.
Oxford cites the English philologist Walter William Skeat as saying the colonello got his name because he led “the little column or company at the head of the regiment.”
The first company of the regiment—the colonel’s company—was called la compagnia colonnella in Italian and la compagnie colonelle in French, according to the OED.
The confusion began when the Italian colonello entered Middle French in the 16th century. The two “l” sounds apparently didn’t sit well with French speakers, so the first “l” changed to “r” and the word briefly became coronel.
The process by which two neighboring “l” sounds were “dissimulated” (or rendered dissimilar) was common in the Romance languages, the OED says.
However, the French coronel “was supplanted in literary use, late in 16th cent., by the more etymological colonnel,” according to the dictionary. (The word is now colonel in modern French.)
But meanwhile both English and Spanish had borrowed coronel, the dissimilated version of the word, from Middle French in the mid-1500s.
When it entered English, in 1548, it was spelled “coronel,” with a three-syllable pronunciation (kor-uh-NEL) similar to that of the Middle French word.
Although it’s still spelled coronel in Spanish, English speakers soon followed the French and returned to the more etymologically correct spelling.
As the OED explains, “under this influence [the French spelling change] and that of translations of Italian military treatises colonel also appeared in English c1580.”
By the mid-1600s, the OED says, “colonel” was the accepted English spelling and “coronel” had fallen by the wayside.
But the word’s pronunciation took much longer to get settled.
The two competing pronunciations (kor-uh-NEL, kol-uh-NEL) existed until the early 19th century, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, along with a popular variation, KER-uh-nel.
In the early 1800s, Chambers says, the KER-uh-nel pronunciation was shortened to KER-nel. (The awkward KOL-nel, a shortened version of kol-uh-NEL, was recorded in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755, but it eventually fell out of use.)
Although the KER-nel pronunciation became universally accepted, Chambers says, “the familiar literary form colonel remained firmly established in printing.”
So you might say that the word’s spelling today reflects its Italian heritage while the pronunciation reflects its French side—that is, its brief period of dissimilation in French.