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Why Is 'Colonel' Spelled That Way?

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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?

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Big Questions
What’s the Difference Between a Gift and a Present?
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It’s that time again when we’re busy buying, wrapping, and giving them. Sometimes we call them gifts, sometimes presents. Is there a difference?

The words come to us from different language families. Gift comes from the old Germanic root for “to give.” It referred to an act of giving, and then, to the thing being given. In Old English it meant the dowry given to a bride’s parents. Present comes from the French for "to present." A present is the thing presented or bestowed. They were both in use for the idea of something undergoing a transfer of possession without expectation of payment from the 13th century onward.

The words gift and present are well-matched synonyms that mean essentially the same thing, but even well-matched synonyms have their own connotations and distinctive patterns of use. Gift applies to a wider range of situations. Gifts can be talents. You can have the gift of gab, or a musical gift. Gifts can be intangibles. There is the gift of understanding or the gift of a quiet day. We generally don’t use present for things like this. Presents are more concrete. A bit more, well, present. If your whole family gave donations to your college fund for your birthday would you say “I got a lot of presents”? It doesn’t exactly sound wrong, but since you never hold these donations in your hand, gifts seems to fit better.

Gift can also be an attributive noun, acting like an adjective to modify another noun. What do you call the type of shop where you can buy presents for people? A gift shop. What do you call the basket of presents that you can have sent to all your employees? A gift basket. Present doesn’t work well in this role of describing other nouns. We have gift boxes, gift cards, and gift wrap, not present boxes, present cards, and present wrap.

Gift appears to be more frequent than present, though it is difficult to get accurate counts, because if you compare occurrences of the noun present with the noun gift, you include that other noun present, meaning the here and now. However, the plural noun presents captures only the word we want. Gifts outnumbers presents in the Corpus of Contemporary American English by four to one.

Still, according to my personal sense of the words, present—though it may not be as common—is more casual sounding than gift. I expect a child to ask Santa for lots and lots of presents, not many, many gifts. But whether it’s gifts or presents you prefer, I wish you many and lots this year, of both the tangible and intangible kind.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Words
21 Fancy Medical Terms for Mundane Problems
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Your health issues might be mundane, but that’s no reason to be boring. Give your complaints some interesting heft with these fancy medical terms for commonplace problems.

1. Limb falling asleep

That numb feeling that you wake to when you’ve slept on your arm wrong is obdormition. It is followed by a pricking, tingling sensation called paresthesia.

2. Ice cream headache

Sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. Say it five times fast to warm up your mouth and relieve the brain freeze.

3. Muscle twitch

If you ever feel the sudden flutter under your skin from a small bundle of muscle fibers spontaneously contracting, you can say you’re experiencing fasciculation (from fasciculus, “little bundle”).

4. Corn

That callus on your foot may be soft, in which case it’s a heloma molle. If it's hard, it's a heloma durum.

5. Tongue bump

One tiny, swollen taste bud looks like no big deal in the mirror, but feels distractingly humongous in your mouth. It has a big name to match that big feeling: transient lingual papillitis.

6. Ingrown toenail

If you want to go Greek, it’s onychocryptosis (“hidden nail”), but if you prefer Latin, stick with unguis incarnatus (“nail in flesh”).

7. Canker sores

Aphthous stomatitis. Hard to say even without canker sores.

8. Cheek biting

You know how sometimes you bite the inside of your cheek by accident, and then you get that little ridge of tissue that sticks out so that you end up biting it again and again? That’s morsicatio buccarum, baby.

9. Getting the wind knocked out of you

This feels bad, but doesn’t last very long. Just a transient diaphragmatic spasm.

10. Hiccup

The more rhythmic diaphragm action of the hiccup is a synchronous diaphragmatic flutter.

11. Sneeze

Why sneeze when you can sternutate?

12. Eye Floaters

What are those little transparent threads you can see floating across your eyeball when you pay close attention? Just muscae volitantes (“flying flies”) the name for the little bits of protein or other material in the jelly inside your eye.

13. Bed wetting

If you wet the bed at night it’s nocturnal enuresis. If you have accidents during the day it’s diurnal enuresis.

14. Fainting

If you faint at the sight of blood or upon hearing some shocking news, it’s probably vasovagal syncope, an automatic response mediated by the vagus nerve. Tightly laced corsets only make it worse.

15. Dizzy from standing up fast

If a dizzy, head rush feeling is brought on by standing up too fast, it’s orthostatic hypotension.

16. Growling stomach

All that rumbling and gurgling in the stomach and guts goes by the name borborygmi.

17. Goose bumps

The Latin horrere originally referred to bristling, or hair standing on end, a sense captured by the word for goose bumps, horripilation.

18. Nose running from eating spicy food

When you’re sniffling while you’re spooning in that spicy soup, you’ve got gustatory rhinitis.

19. Joints making noise

All that popping, creaking, and cracking of joints when you get out of bed in the morning goes by the name of crepitus, from the Latin for “rattle, crack.” The word decrepit goes back to the same root.

20. Shin splints

People aren’t very impressed by shin splints, but they might be impressed by medial tibial stress syndrome.

21. Hangover

Overdid it last night? Just explain to your boss that you’ve got a bit of veisalgia. This fancy word for hangover was coined in a 2000 paper in a medical journal. It combines the Norwegian word kveis (“uneasiness following debauchery”) with the Greek word for pain.

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