Pronunciation: Left of centre or down the loo?

Does anyone remember the M*A*S*H episode in which Corporal Radar O’Reilly is made a corporal captain? Reminiscing on this episode, I got to thinking about other military ranks: captain-lieutenant, lieutenant-admiral and, of course, Henry Blake’s rank, lieutenant-colonel. More specifically, I began to wonder why we in Canada say LEF-tenant, when there is no actual f in the word itself. A huge fan of the television show M*A*S*H, I well remember the episode “Welcome to Korea”. First aired September 12, 1975, it was the series’ first hour-long episode and also the first to depict the 4077th after the death of former unit commander Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake, whose plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan.

Following assembly, Corporal Walter (Radar) O’Reilly follows Captain (Hawkeye) Pierce into the showers and informs him of Captain John (Trapper) McIntyre’s military discharge. Trapper has left the camp, without a written goodbye, only hours before Hawkeye’s return from R&R.

Just as Radar is preparing to leave in a jeep for Kimpo Air Force Base to pick up Trapper’s replacement, Hawkeye jumps in and insists on driving. Later, at Kimpo, when the pair decides it is time to leave, they discover that the jeep has been taken. Hawkeye, in an attempt to calm a panicky Radar, suggests they, and the new surgeon, Captain B. J. Hunnicutt, go to the officers’ club to unwind. When Radar points out that the club is for officers only, Hawkeye devises a solution: taking one set of Hunnicutt’s captain’s bars, he pins them to Radar’s hat. When asked how he plans to explain the corporal’s bars on Radar’s sleeve, Hawkeye replies that he is testing a new rank: corporal captain.

Naturally, I started thinking about other military ranks, and wondered why we in Canada say LEF-tenant, when there is no actual f in the word itself. Borderline obsessive in my fascination with etymology, I immediately rushed to the Oxford English Dictionary to find the answer.

Yes, there are two pronunciations: the more common U.S. ljuːˈtɛnənt and the British lɪfˈtɛnənt. In England, this pronunciation /ljuːˈtɛnənt/ is almost unknown. A newspaper quotation of 1893 in Funk’s Standard Dictionary of the English Language says that, in the United States, /lɛfˈtɛnənt/ is “almost confined to the retired list of the navy”.

A translation (by R. Higden) of medieval English scholar John Trevisa’s Polychron (1387) includes the passage “Hubert archebisshop of Caunterbury was leeftenaunt [v.rr. lutenant, levetenaunt] of þe pope and of the kyng of Engelond.” A century later, a similar spelling appears in Bruce by poet John Barbour (1487).

The origin of the British pronunciation, derived from the Middle English forms (i.e., leef, leyf, lyef, leve, lyffe, live, lefe, leif and so on + the second element) is difficult to explain. It’s been suggested that the pronunciation is merely a misinterpretation of the u as a v. While plausible, this hypothesis does not support known facts. Given the rare Old French form luef for lieu (place), it is more likely that the formation of the lips at the end of the Old French lieu as the first element of a compound was occasionally heard by Englishmen as v or f.

Walker, in 1793, gave the actual pronunciation as /lɛv-/ /lɪvˈtɛnənt/, although he hoped “the regular sound, lewtenant” would, in time, become current.

While this now satisfies my curiosity, I must admit that I still can’t quite wrap my head around the use of lieutenant as a prefixed title denoting military or naval ranks. It’s almost as difficult as trying to figure out corporal captain. I sympathize with poor Radar.

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