why do the British pronounce it "LEFTenant"?

just wondering why the British (and Canadians) pronounce the word Lieutenant as “LEFTenant”

Pronunciation preceded spelling.

Cecil addessed this in passing in More of the Straight Dope, but that column doesn’t appear to be available online. Also, his only explanation was “Naturally, since the British cannot stand to pronounce anything the way it is spelled, they say leftenant” which admittedly isn’t up to his usual comprehensive standards. (This came up in a long column about whether the British Royal Family had a last name)

Maybe some of the Teeming Millions will have more to offer on this topic.

The word comes from Old French “lieutenant”. In the middle ages, *U[/] and V were interchangeable (as in Latin), so that may be where the v in Middle English “levetenant” came from. An F is only an unvoiced V, so it’s easy to see how the pronunciation evolved from that. Evidently someone somewhere along the line decided to frenchify the spelling to its original “lieutenant” but to keep the English pronunciation.

By the way, “lieutenant” derives from Latin locum tenens, “taking the place of”.

Work is the curse of the drinking classes. (Oscar Wilde)

Wouldn’t pronouncing the “ieu” as [ef] indicate a Greek influence?

is there much difference between “Leftenant” and “Cernol”? I assume you guys put in the unwritten “r” in Colonel?

Thanks for doing your bit to advance the cause of human knowledge.
  – Cecil Adams

Yes, we Yanks stick an r in. I was surprised to learn that the situation for “colonel” is very similar to that for “lieutenant.” Here’s the story:

The word was originally spelled “coronel” in both French and English. The spelling was later altered to relfect the Latin “columna” from which coronel / colonel is ultimately derived. The older English pronunciation was retained.


“The dawn of a new era is felt and not measured.” Walter Lord

In Spanish lieutenant is “teniente” which is short for “lugar-teniente”, literally place tenant or holder. Colonel is “coronel”. Both are pronounced exactly as they are written as are all words in Castillian Spanish.