Knowledgable linguist Rob Watts of RobWords examined the etymological origins of certain military ranks, the way they are spelled, and the regional differences in how they are pronounced. He then reranked the military according to the original definition of each title.
In this etymological march through the army ranks I’m rewriting the military hierarchy. I’ve come up with a new order for the rankings of officers and soldiers based entirely on what the titles actually mean.
He starts with the most confusing one, particularly between the US and UK. Lieutenant. The term comes from the French and means “placeholder”. While there is no “f” (or combination of letters that make that sound) in lieutenant, the British pronounce the word as left-tenant, while the US pronounces it as loo-tenant. Neither is right or wrong, however, as Watts points out, the American pronunciation brings to mind one who spends time in the bathroom.
Lyoo-tenant has never really caught on. Nowadays it’s the Americans who come closest with their pronunciation of loo-tenant – which, though much more true to the spelling of the word, to British ears kind of sounds like the occupant of a restroom. In the armed forces of pretty much every other English speaking country the rank is pronounced LEF-TENANT. Which is frankly baffling, isn’t it? There’s no F anywhere near that word. So why is it pronounced like that? Well, we simply don’t know. It’s one of the many unsolved mysteries of English.
The other ranks and odds spelling that Watts discusses are Colonel (“column”; pronounced “cernel”), Sergeant (“servant”), Major (“bigger”), Captain (“head”), Private (“private army”), and Field Marshall (“horse servant”).