Teaching Materials
Ask a Master Teacher
Lesson Plan Gateway
Lesson Plan Reviews
State Standards
Teaching Guides
Digital Classroom
Ask a Digital Historian
Tech for Teachers
Beyond the Chalkboard
History Content
Ask a Historian
Beyond the Textbook
History Content Gateway
History in Multimedia
Museums and Historic Sites
National Resources
Website Reviews
Issues and Research
Report on the State of History Education
Research Briefs
Best Practices
Examples of Historical Thinking
Teaching in Action
Teaching with Textbooks
Using Primary Sources
TAH Projects
Lessons Learned
Project Directors Conference
Project Spotlight
TAH Projects
Technical Working Group
Research Advisors
Teacher Representatives
Quiz Rules
Teaching History.org logo and contact info

How Did "Colonel" Become "Ker-nul"?


Why do Americans pronounce the word "colonel" as if there was an r in it?


Colonel came into English, according to The Oxford English Dictionary, in the mid-16th century from Middle French, and there were two forms of the word then, coronel (or coronelle, akin to Spanish coronel) and colonel, the latter form more clearly reflecting its Old Italian antecedent, colonello ("column of soldiers," from Latin, columnella, "small column"). The written style continued to reflect the older form, while the spoken form, competing against it, as it were, reflected the other—coronel—which was often pronounced to sound like "kernul" or "kernel." Given the Middle French form, the r sound in the pronunciation of some Americans is not strange.

British and American pronunciations differ, but dialects across the British Isles vary as well.

Most American English dialects are "rhotic," whereas "Received British Pronunciation" (RPR) is "non-rhotic," which means that there are many cases where a Brit will not pronounce the letter r except when it is followed by a vowel sound. As a result, words pronounced in many dialects of American English as having an "r-colored vowel" (e.g., hard, cupboard, water, bird) are pronounced with an open, plain vowel sound by Brits. However, British dialects are varied: Despite the growing influence of non-rhotic RPR over the last several centuries, rural dialects in the west of the British Isles are still rhotic. When colonel first came into the language, it is unclear how many Brits would have pronounced the r in it and how many would not have done so.

Not all Americans pronounce the r

In addition, not all Americans pronounce the r. My aunt Virginia, I imagine, was surprised when, growing up as a little girl in Mississippi, she was taught to spell her name and discovered that there was an r in it. In my head, I can hear her pronounce the name of our distant kinsman, "Colonel John Singleton Mosby," and I hear no r in it at all.

Now here's a question for you to research: When Brits pronounce the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, why do they sometimes pronounce the word "Lieutenant" as if it were spelled "Lef-tenant?"


The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition.

Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary.

Images of Virginia Colonels George Washington, John Singleton Mosby, and Robert E. Lee are from the New York Public Library Digital Collection and from the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Wrong. Lew-tenant is closer

Wrong. Lew-tenant is closer to the original pronunciation. Mishearing the sound and misinterpreting the rare spelling of luef is responsible for the corruption into lef-tenant.

Still very strange why there

Still very strange why there is an "r" in the pronunciation of the word "colonel".

Lieu as in lieu of or in

Lieu as in lieu of or in place of. In Latin script liev. Hence its pronunciation where the 'v' gets softened to an 'f'.

Very interesting indeed... My

Very interesting indeed... My name is Uri (short from Uriel, like Dani & Daniel). Most English speaking people, can't pronounce an "r" following a "u"?? So whenever I introduce myself I say: Yuri, which again folks confuse me for being Russian ;-)

very helpful website! Thanks

very helpful website! Thanks for providing this knowledge!

I believe "lef-tenant" comes

I believe "lef-tenant" comes from the French "lieu-tenant" pronounced "lev-tenant" in the old form. The English, I believe, altered the pronunciation to suit their dialect. In theory, this means "lef-tenant" is closer to the correct pronunciation.

Lieutenant is ALWAYS

Lieutenant is ALWAYS pronounced "lef-tenant in English English.

Thank you very much for this

Thank you very much for this article! I never knew why?
- A student from Welby Way Elm., West Hills CA

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <b> <i>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

Enter the characters shown in the image.