Q: My daughter wonders why “lieutenant” is pronounced lef-TEN-ant in the UK and loo-TEN-ant in the US. Do you have any clues?
A: The word “lieutenant” came into Middle English in the 1300s from French—lieu for “place” and tenant for “holding.”
(Originally a “lieutenant” was a placeholder, a civil or military officer acting in place of a superior. Think of the phrase “in lieu of” for “in place of.” )
But since the beginning, the British have commonly pronounced the first syllable of “lieutenant” as if it had an “f” or a “v.”
In the early days, this tendency was sometimes reflected in spellings: “leeftenaunt” (1387), “luf-tenend “ (late 1300s), “leyf tenaunt” (early 1400s),” “lyeftenaunt” (circa 1425), “luff tenande” (late 1400s), “leivetenant” (late 1500s), and so on.
But long after the spelling stabilized and “lieutenant” became the dominant form in writing, the “f” sound has survived in British speech, where the usual pronunciation today is lef-TEN-ant. Nobody knows why.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the origin of the “f” and “v” sounds “is difficult to explain,” and the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says it “remains uncertain.” In other words, we can only guess.
The OED says one theory is that English readers misinterpreted the letter “u” as a “v,” since in Middle English the two letters were not distinct.
But Oxford says this can’t account for the “f” and “v” pronunciations since it “does not accord with the facts.”
The dictionary is apparently referring to the fact that in Middle English spelling, the letter “v” was generally used at the beginning of a word and “u” elsewhere, regardless of the sound, which accounts for old spellings like “vpon” (upon) and “loue” (love). However, the “u” is in the middle of “lieutenant,” not the beginning.
The OED suggests two possibilities to explain the appearance of the “f” and “v” sounds in “lieutenant.”
One is that that some of the “f” and “v” pronunciations “may be due to association” with the noun “leave” or the adjective “lief.”
A likelier theory is “that the labial glide at the end of Old French lieu as the first element of a compound was sometimes apprehended by English-speakers as a v or f.” (A labial glide is a transitional sound in which air is forced through the lips.)
Oxford also notes the existence of “the rare Old French form leuf for lieu,” which may have influenced the English pronunciation. (The language researcher Michael Quinion cites a medieval form of the word, leuftenant, in the records of what is now a Swiss canton.)
However it came about, the usual pronunciation in Britain today begins with “lef,” and seems unlikely to change.
As Oxford notes, John Walker in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1793) gives the “actual pronunciation” of the first syllable as “lef” or “liv,” though he “expresses the hope that ‘the regular sound, lewtenant’ will in time become current.” Despite Walker’s advice, that pronunciation “is almost unknown” in Britain, the OED adds.
Noah Webster, in his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), recommends only one pronunciation for the word, which he renders as “lutenant.”
American dictionaries have followed Webster’s lead and give loo-TEN-ant as the pronunciation, though they usually note the lef-TEN-ant pronunciation in Britain.
Finally, an aside. Another of our correspondents once suggested that the British pronunciation arose though squeamishness: “The Brits didn’t want to refer to their officers with the term ‘loo’!”
Intriguing, but untrue. The word “loo” wasn’t recorded in the bathroom sense until the 20th century. Another theory down the drain.