Posted by: Jack Henry | May 31, 2017

Editor’s Corner: Lieutenant

Several of you asked about the term “lieutenant” after my email yesterday about military terms. The most common question was “Why do the British pronounce it leftenant?” Nobody seems to know the real story about how that evolved, though there are certainly a lot of theories. My favorite was from someone in the UK who said something like, “The British don’t like the French, so they refused to pronounce it the way the French would.”

From The Grammarist

Lieutenantis the only spelling of the word denoting a second in charge, a deputy, or a rank in the armed forces and (in the United States) police services. The spelling is the same in all varieties of English, regardless of pronunciation. Confusion sometimes arises because, in the U.S., the word is routinely said “lootenant” (or sometimes “lyootenant”), while in the United Kingdom and other countries of the British Commonwealth the preferred pronunciation is “leftenant.” The “American” pronunciation is, however, becoming commonplace in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and even the U.K., albeit mostly outside official usage.

Like a great many words in English (e.g. drought, colonel, sergeant, debt, etc.), the modern pronunciation may not be phonetic and sometimes seems to be downright antiphonetic. The British pronunciation of lieutenant derives from its history, much of which remains obscure. Premodern spellings (e.g. luff-, leif-, etc.) show that the “lef-” pronunciation has a long history but was by no means the sole one. At some point, spelling and pronunciation diverged in Britain, only to converge again later in the United States. To confuse matters further, the British Royal Navy traditionally pronounced the word “luhtenant,” although this seems to have fallen out of favor.

Neither the British nor the American way of saying lieutenant is inherently better or worse than any other. The choice depends on context (it might be inappropriate to say “lootenant governor” in Canada, for instance) and, to some extent, personal preference

Here is the etymology of the word, from Wikipedia.

The word lieutenant derives from French; the lieu meaning "place" as in a position (cf. in lieu of); and tenant meaning "holding" as in "holding a position"; thus a "lieutenant" is a placeholder for a superior, during their absence (compare the Latin locum tenens).

In the 19th century, British writers who considered this word either an imposition on the English language, or difficult for common soldiers and sailors, argued for it to be replaced by the [word] "steadholder." However, their efforts failed, and the French word is still used, along with its many variations (e.g. lieutenant colonel, lieutenant general, lieutenant commander, flight lieutenant, second lieutenant and many non-English language examples), in both the Old and the New World.

And here are some photos from Pearl Harbor last week, because my idea of “Spring Break” is a little different from other people’s. J

Pearl Harbor

Model of the sunken USS Arizona and the USS Arizona Memorial

Actual photo of the ship and the memorial [KC – This one is from the internet.]

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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