Lieutenant is derived from the French lieu tenente, 'place-holder', being originally a place-holder for the Captain - ie. someone who kept his files in order, brought him cups of tea, and all sorts of other such stuff. Hence the Royal Navy has the right idea on the pronunciation: "L'tenant" being the nearest anglicised version of the original French.

Other notable pronunciations (wrong, but we can let them off) are:

The British Army and RAF say "Lef-tenant";
Americans say "loo-tenant", which is how it looks, but we're not concerned here with form over function.

The military rank most often made fun of; a Lieutenant is an officer, and therefore outranks all enlisted personnel (often well over 50% of the total force), but:

  • he doesn't outrank any other officers*, so he is often their coffee boy, and
  • he has (typically) no practical experience.

The situation is right out of Dilbert; your boss has been assigned over you not because he knows what he's doing, but because somebody has taught him to be the boss. In any case, Lieutenants generally fill middle management roles, and so are ripe for jokes like those in Office Space. In combat, however, ineptitude is handled in a manner Charles Darwin would approve of: in Vietnam, the average life span of an Army Second Lieutenant in the field was under 4 days.

The pronunciation of "Lieutenant" is another strange thing that makes American Lieutenants laugh when they go to any country formerly owned by the UK (not counting America). I've never met any English Lieutenants, so I don't know if they laugh about it when they come over here, too, but the difference is in the first syllable:

They say "LEF-ten-unt", we say "LOO-ten-unt", and the original French pronunciation is closer to "LYUH-ten-awng". When I was last over in the UK at Mildenhall Royal Air Force Base (shortly after I had gotten my commission as a second lieutenant), I was waiting for my flight back to the states when the lady behind the counter called out my rank and last name over the loudspeaker. I almost went into a convulsive giggling fit.


*except in the Navy, where a lieutenant is equivalent in rank to an Army Captain--an O-3.

Lieu*ten"ant (?), n. [F., fr. lieu place + tenant holding, p. pr. of tenir to hold, L. tenere. See Lieu, and Tenant, and cf. Locum tenens.]

1.

An officer who supplies the place of a superior in his absence; a representative of, or substitute for, another in the performance of any duty.

The lawful magistrate, who is the vicegerent or lieutenant of God. Abp. Bramhall.

2. (a)

A commissioned officer in the army, next below a captain.

(b)

A commissioned officer in the British navy, in rank next below a commander.

(c)

A commissioned officer in the United States navy, in rank next below a lieutenant commander.

Lieutenant is often used, either adjectively or in hyphened compounds, to denote an officer, in rank next below another, especially when the duties of the higher officer may devolve upon the lower one; as, lieutenant general, or lieutenant-general; lieutenant colonel, or lieutenant-colonel; lieutenant governor, etc.

Deputy lieutenant, the title of any one of the deputies or assistants of the lord lieutenant of a county. [Eng.] -- Lieutenant colonel, an army officer next in rank above major, and below colonel. -- Lieutenant commander, an officer in the United States navy, in rank next below a commander and next above a lieutenant. -- Lieutenant general. See in Vocabulary. -- Lieutenant governor. (a) An officer of a State, being next in rank to the governor, and in case of the death or resignation of the latter, himself acting as governor. [U. S.] (b) A deputy governor acting as the chief civil officer of one of several colonies under a governor general. [Eng.]

 

© Webster 1913.

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