LAST UPDATED: October 17, 2020 by Ryan M
The American word, colonel, was derived from the French word, coronel, through a process called dissimilation.
In the 1500s, English borrowed a handful of military terms from French words like infanterie, cavalerie, citadelle, and also, coronel. Interestingly, the French actually borrowed many of their military terms from the Italians. One of those terms was colonello. The French then morphed colonello into coronel through a process called dissimilation which I’ll briefly discuss below.
Dissimilation is when two instances of a similar sound occur too close to each other in a word. People tend to change one of the instances of these sounds to something else when this happens. In this case, the first “l” was changed to “r.”
After the dissimilated French coronel made its way into the English vernacular in the late 16th century, scholars began producing English translations of Italian military treatises. Under the influence of the originals, people started spelling it colonel. By the mid 17th century, the spelling standardized to the “l” version, but the “r” pronunciation hung around.