A reader comments,
I’ve often wondered where the “r” sound came from in colonel. I’m certain, in the original French, both Ls were pronounced as Ls–what happened?
Colonel is the spelling in modern French, but when the word entered English in the 16th century, the French were spelling it coronel or coronnel. The first “l” had become an “r” sound by way of dissimilation.
dissimilation: a. Philology. The differentiation of two similar or identical sounds occurring near each other in a word, by change of one of them. An example is Latin peregrinus, which became pelegrino in Italian.
Dissimilation is also at work in the way many speakers pronounce February as FEB-yoo-ER-ee. (A pronunciation, by the way, that Charles Elster finds “beastly.”)
Colonel derives from Latin columella, “a little column.” At some point, the first “l” became an “r,” and the word became established in French as coronel. The coronel was the officer who led the “little column” of troops at the head of a regiment. By the end of the 16th century, the more etymologically correct spelling colonnel displaced coronel in French literary use. The spelling colonel appeared in English about 1580.
For a time, both spellings existed side by side in English; the coronel spelling prevailed in writing until 1630, but by 1650, colonel had pushed out coronel.
The pronunciation of colonel also went through changes.
In the 17th century, colonel was trisyllabic in English, as it still is in French. By 1669, it began to be pronounced with two syllables, “col’nel.” Apparently many speakers were also pronouncing it as “ker’nel,” because that is the pronunciation that has survived.