The fact that it was sometimes spelled with an f as far back as the 14th
century shows that the British pronunciation is quite old.
This column came out of a conversation that I overheard between a former Indian army man and someone from Canadian military. They were debating whether the irregular British (and Indian) pronunciation of lieutenant as ‘lef-ten’unt’ was preferable to its regular and more logical pronunciation ‘lOO-ten’unt’ that is common in the US and in Canada although the latter was once a British dominion.
Lieutenant and other military ranks have fascinating etymological histories. It might be helpful to understand lieutenant’s etymology by looking at the cognates, which are ‘lieu’ and ‘tenant’. Combining lieu meaning place (as in the phrase ‘in lieu of’= in place of) with tenant meaning a person who rents land or property from a landlord became (c. 1375) lieutenant, literally, a person who holds the property in place of the owner. Gradually it came to convey the notion of ‘one who takes the place of another’ and then of a substitute or representative for higher authority, a deputy or aide with power to act when his superior is absent.
Who sees God’s face, that is self life, must die;/What a death were it then to see God die!/It made his own lieutenant, Nature, shrink;/It made his footstool crack, and the sun wink. John Donne (1572–1631)
Lieutenant’s specific military sense of ‘officer next in rank to a captain’ is from 1578. Let some scholar decide if Shakespeare (1564-1616) used it in a literary or a military sense when Iago said “What, are you hurt, lieutenant?” (Othello); “The murderer who has come for Clarence treats the Lieutenant of the Tower with scant respect.” (Richard III); and Antony, in Antony and Cleopatra, rebuked “his lieutenant Enobarbus.”
In contemporary usage, a lieutenant can also be an associate or friend (“He was Jack’s trusted lieutenant.”), or a junior employee (“If he can’t attend, he will send his lieutenant.”) In some police forces in the United States, a lieutenant’s rank is roughly equivalent to an Indian police inspector.
Why the word is pronounced with lef- is mired in mystery. The fact that it was sometimes spelled with an f as far back as the 14th century shows that the British pronunciation is quite old. In the 19th century some British writers complained that this word was an imposition on the English language as well as difficult for common soldiers and sailors, and campaigned for it to be replaced by “steadholder”. They obviously failed. The triumph of the regular pronunciation in the United States is owed to lexicographer Noah Webster’s insistence on the congruence of pronunciation and orthography (the art of writing words with the proper letters). Consider, for example, the American English spelling of ‘colour’ as ‘color’.
The use of the word for somebody who holds a position in the absence of his or her superior or is “second in command” is clear again in Lieutenant-Colonel. Interestingly, this rank is spelled the same in French as in English, but loses lieu- as Teniente Coronel (in Spanish speaking countries), as Tenente-Coronel in Brazil and Portugal, and Tenente Colonnello in Italian. In several Slavic languages, it becomes Leytenant. Why English speakers pronounce ‘colonel’ as ‘kernel’ might be the subject of another column.
There are phonological hypotheses that explain why the syllable in question might have been retained in English, but the folk-etymological interpretations are far more interesting. Some wit tried to connect ‘left’ with the verb ‘to leave’ to imply that a lieutenant (left-tenant) could carry out his duties once his superior had ‘left’. Another explanation is based on the tradition of lieutenants standing to the rear-left of the commanding officer in military parades. At official civil ceremonies and diplomatic functions, the protocol has those directly second to a dignitary standing at the rear-left of him or her.
While on the subject, let’s throw in some arcane details. In English-speaking countries, the most junior commissioned officer in the Army is a Second Lieutenant. In some countries, the armed forces also have a position called the Third Lieutenant for newly-commissioned officers for whom no authorised Second Lieutenant position exists. Under the British raj, the British monarch’s representatives were called Viceroy; in the counties of the United Kingdom they are called Lords Lieutenant. In countries such as Canada where the British monarch is still the titular head of state, the head of the country is Governor-General, and the head of a province is called Lieutenant-Governor. More on ‘generals’ in the next column.
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