Any experienced online dater knows that looks can be deceiving. Someone may look like a catch from the profile pictures, but once you meet in person and his or her mouth opens, you get a completely different impression.
Well, the English language isn’t so different. Some words don’t sound anything at all like what they look like written out: thought, phlegm, pneumonia, basically anything with silent letters.
But “colonel” is a different story. The “l” isn’t silent; it just sounds like an “r.”
The origin of this strange pronunciation starts in the Middle Ages Italy, where a military officer was called “colonello.” Then, the French borrowed that word and changed it to “coronel” through a process called dissimilation. That’s when one sound appears twice in a word, and one of the instances of that sound changes into a similar sound. For “colonello,” the first “l” got changed to the neighboring sound “r.”
Think “l” and “r” don’t have similar sounds? Here’s your linguistics lesson for the day: Make the “r” sound, then put your tongue on the roof of your mouth. We use the same parts of the mouth to make those two sounds.
By the 1500s, the English were adding French military terms to their own grammatical arsenal, words like “cavalerie,” “canon,” “infanterie,” and yes, “coronel.” (Any of those look familiar?) Later that century, English scholars translating Italian military documents came across “colonello.” Influenced by that original word, they changed “coronel” to “colonel.”
Just one problem—People were still used to saying “coronel.” So while the spelling changed, the pronunciation stayed the same. Like many English words, over time it got contracted to the misleading word we know today as “kur-nel.”