Why Is 'Colonel' Spelled That Way?

Getty Images
Getty Images

English spelling is bizarre. We know that. From the moment we learn about silent “e” in school, our innocent expectations that sound and spelling should neatly match up begin to fade away, and soon we accept that “eight” rhymes with “ate,” “of” rhymes with “love,” and “to” sounds like “too” sounds like “two.” If we do sometimes briefly pause to wonder at these eccentricities, we quickly resign ourselves to the fact that there must be reasons—stuff about history and etymology and sound changing over time. Whatever. English. LOL. Right? It is what it is.

But sometimes English takes it a step too far, does something so brazen and shameless we can’t just let it slide. That’s when we have to throw our shoulders back, put our hands on our hips and ask, point blank, what is the deal with the word “colonel”?

“Colonel” is pronounced just like “kernel.” How did this happen? From borrowing the same word from two different places. In the 1500s, English borrowed a bunch of military vocabulary from French, words like cavalerie, infanterie, citadelle, canon, and also, coronel. The French had borrowed them from the Italians, then the reigning experts in the art of war, but in doing so, had changed colonello to coronel.

Why did they do that? A common process called dissimilation—when two instances of the same sound occur close to each other in a word, people tend to change one of the instances to something else. Here, the first “l” was changed to “r.” The opposite process happened with the Latin word peregrinus (pilgrim), when the first “r” was changed to an “l” (now it’s peregrino in Spanish and Pellegrino in Italian. English inherited the “l” version in pilgrim.)

After the dissimilated French coronel made its way into English, late 16th century scholars started producing English translations of Italian military treatises. Under the influence of the originals, people started spelling it “colonel.” By the middle of the 17th century, the spelling had standardized to the “l” version, but the “r” pronunciation was still popular (it later lost a syllable, turning kor-o-nel to ker-nel). Both pronunciations were in play for a while, and adding to the confusion was the mistaken idea that “coronel” was etymologically related to “crown”—a colonel was sometimes translated as “crowner” in English. In fact, the root is colonna, Italian for column.

Meanwhile, French switched back to “colonel,” in both spelling and pronunciation. English throws its shoulders back, puts its hands on its hips and asks, how boring is that?

Thoughtful Human's Line of Plantable Greeting Cards Is Here for Life's Most Delicate Scenarios

Thoughtful Human
Thoughtful Human

Not sure how to make amends with that family member you had a fight with a couple years back? Perhaps you want to offer support to a friend going through a painful time—like with depression, cancer, or various kinds of grief—but don't know how. If you're having trouble finding the right words to say, Thoughtful Human wants to help. This unorthodox card company is challenging people to communicate in ways that show "radical compassion and empathy."

Thoughtful Human is essentially the Hallmark of strained relationships and awkward ice-breakers. The messages get straight to the point and say the words you might have trouble voicing aloud. "I was being really selfish and immature. I'm sorry," reads one. "Still mad, but life is short and tradition is tradition. Happy birthday," reads another.

But what truly makes these cards a literal alternative to extending an olive branch is that they're also plantable? All of the cards are made of seed paper, and they generally transform into wildflowers within 10-14 days of being planted. View it as a symbol of the restorative power of communication.

A variety of cards
Thoughtful Human

In a video posted to the company's website, Thoughtful Human's founder, Ali O'Grady, explains that the cards are designed for "dynamic relationships and challenging life circumstances." It's also a deeply personal project: She decided to start the company after losing her father to cancer.

There are cards dedicated to addiction and rehab, depression, grief, injury, long-distance relationships, and other delicate scenarios. Of course, you'll also find plenty of cards for happier times, including thank-you notes and congratulatory messages.

And if you haven't sent out your Christmas cards yet, consider this anti-holiday holiday card: "Shout out to that stranger's baby who locked in a lifetime of undeserved gifts, pie, and vacation time for everyone."

These cards and more can be found on Thoughtful Human's website, on Target.com, and at select Whole Foods stores in California's Bay Area.

Celebrate the Encyclopedia Britannica's 250th Birthday by Checking Out Its First Edition Online

Encyclopedia Britannica volumes on display at the New York Public Library
Encyclopedia Britannica volumes on display at the New York Public Library
Mario Tama/Getty Images

While those gold-embossed, multi-volume sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica were a feature of many an American childhood, the origins of the venerable reference work actually lie in Scotland. Two hundred and fifty years ago—on December 10, 1768—the first pages of the Britannica were published in Edinburgh. To celebrate the anniversary, the National Library of Scotland has put a rare first edition of the encyclopedia online.

The first edition was the brainchild of printer Colin Macfarquhar, engraver Andrew Bell, and the editor William Smellie. It was published in 100 weekly sections over three volumes (completed in 1771), but explicit engravings of midwifery scandalized some subscribers, and were ripped out on the orders of the Crown. The entries of the first edition—some of which ran to hundreds of pages—reflect the biases and preoccupations of their time: woman is defined as "the female of a man," while there are 39 pages devoted to horse diseases. Nevertheless, the work was a significant accomplishment that drew on at least 150 sources, from essays by famous philosophers to newspaper articles. It also featured 160 copperplate engravings by Bell.

The title page on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica
The title page on the first edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica

In a statement from the National Library of Scotland, Rare Books Curator Robert Betteridge said, "By the 20th century Britannica was a household name throughout the English-speaking world, and what is especially interesting about this publication was that it had a distinctly Scottish viewpoint. The first edition emphasized two themes—modern science and Scottish identity, including ground-breaking and controversial articles on anatomy and Scots Law."

The first edition (which includes those ripped-out midwifery pages) will appear as part of an exhibit on the Scottish Enlightenment at the National Library of Scotland this summer. For now, you can view all three volumes of the first edition, from "A—the name of several rivers" to Zygophyllum, a genus in botany—online here.

[h/t American Libraries]

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