Monday, July 29, 2013

Colonel of Wisdom

Why do we pronounce colonel just like kernel?  It has to do with similar words in Italian, French, and Spanish that competed with each other for popularity in the seventeenth century.

In Italy, a colonella  was the commander of a colonella compagnia, which was a company composed of a small column of soldiers at the head of a regiment.  Colonella derived from Latin columna (“pillar”).

The French and the Spanish modified the word colonel to coronel in the sixteenth century in a process known as linguistic dissimilation, which occurs frequently with “l” and “r.” In English, coronel was the usual form, pronounced accordingly with an “r” sound.  But some erudite writers reverted to the Italian colonel, and both spellings co-existed during the sixteenth century. Eventually, the Italianate spelling won out, but the Spanish pronunciation prevailed. By 1670 the English, as they so often do, abbreviated the word to two syllables and shortened the vowel sound of the “o.”

A kernel is from the Old English cyrnel, “seed, pip,” from Proto-Germanic kurnilo, meaning the root or seed of corn. 

            A high-ranking United States colonel 
            Had an illness he felt was intolonel. 
            He consulted some docs, 
            Who said his equinox 
            No longer appeared to be volonel.

NOT SO HIGH TEA: I see that one of our worthy charities is auctioning what purports to be an elegant social event as a fund-raiser—“high tea” with Lynn Wyatt at either her River Oaks Houston home or New York’s Carlyle Hotel.  I don’t think those folks really mean “high tea,” the meaning of which I pointed out in an earlier blog ( Tea, in England, is not only a drink, but also a light meal, which typically includes bread and butter, biscuits (cookies), and, if you’re lucky, cake, crumpets, or scones.  This ordinary afternoon tea differs from “high tea” (so-called at least since 1831), which is a principal meal, specifically one that includes meat, and is eaten in the late afternoon, taking the place of both afternoon tea and dinner. “High tea” might typically consist of fried eggs, sausages, baked beans on toast, and, of course, chips (fried potatotes).  I bet that’s not Mrs. Wyatt’s menu.

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