In Pronunciation: Left of centre or down the loo?, I explored the etymological reasons lieutenant has two different pronunciations. I then got to wondering why colonel is pronounced kernel. Off I went once again to pore over the Oxford English Dictionary.
What many people don’t realize is that colonel comes from the sixteenth century coronel, from the French coronnel (also coronel, couronnel). The later French colonnel is itself taken from the Italian colonnello, colonello, denoting the chief commander of a regiment. The first company of a regiment or infantry was known as la compagnia colonella in Italian and as la compagnie colonnelle or, simply, la colonnelle in French. The colonel was so called because of his role as leader of the little column or company of soldiers at the head of a regiment.
Thus, the early French coronel (from which the Spanish coronel is also derived) was due to the dissimilation of l–l, common in Romanic, although popular etymology associated it with corona (Fr.) and couronne (Sp.) crown. Coronel is still dialectal, but, late in the sixteenth century, it was supplanted in literary use by the more etymological colonnel. Therefore, under this influence and that of translations of Italian military treatises, colonel also appeared in English around 1580 and was the prevailing form until 1630, before disappearing from writing around 1650.
In the seventeenth century, colonell was trisyllabic and was often accented (in verse) on the last syllable. However, according to Dr. John Jones’s Practical Phonography (1701), it began, in 1669, to be reduced in pronunciation to two syllables, col’nel.
Nevertheless, the earlier coronel never died out of popular use. In his On Early English Pronunciation, Dr. A.J. Ellis cites Dyche (1710) for /ˈkʌrəʊnɛl/, Buchanan (1766) for /ˈkɔːnɪl/, and Sheridan (1780) for /ˈkɜːnɛl/, the pronunciation now established, although apparently not yet universal in 1816.
Just as lieutenant is used in compounds (e.g., lieutenant commander, captain-lieutenant), so, too, is colonel. In fact, if not the perfect marriage of military discipline and competence, the bumbling but lovable Henry Blake from TV’s M*A*S*H is, nevertheless, a lieutenant-colonel. Other compounds include colonel-general, as well as the now obsolete colonel-commandant and colonel-ensign.
Is it me, or do those sound like the fictitious military ranks Sector Admiral and Fleet Admiral common in science fiction? To heck with this whole colonel versus kernel thing: I’m going to go make some popcorn and watch some of the Star Trek movies on Netflix.