We all have those times when we suddenly realize that we’ve missed something obvious, times when we think to ourselves, “Duh.” That’s how I felt the other day when I realized it had never even occurred to me to look into why coroner looks so very similar to corona (Eng, “ring around the sun,” among other meanings); corona (Span) and other similar European words meaning “crown,” many of which have lent their names to their country’s currency; and colonel/coronel (Eng/Span). Just like colonel and coronel are the same word, coronel and coroner are practically the same word, I thought as I looked at them. The letters l and r do tend to dance around and trade with and morph into each other. (Example, Latin miraculum, English miracle, but Spanish milagro.)
In class last week, we had a guest lecture from a death investigator. For various reasons, there may be call for an investigation of a death outside of the investigation that the police, coroner and/or medical examiner have done. One of those reasons is because the family or insurance company wants a more detailed look at whether a death was a homicide or a suicide. Our guest lecturer told us that the coroner was so named because if a death was a suicide, the decedent’s possessions reverted to the crown. So the coroner was the crowner.
Off I went to the OED. There, coroner is defined as “An officer of a county, district, or municipality (formerly also of the royal household), originally charged with maintaining the rights of the private property of the crown; in modern times his chief function is to hold inquest on the bodies of those supposed to have died by violence or accident.” When they say “modern times,” by the way, they mean going back to about the 13th century.
Coronel/colonel is a little more complicated, and it turns out that it’s related to the other “crown” words only by a linguistic accident. Both forms originate with the Italian word colonna, meaning column. This military position was in charge of a “small column”—colon(n)ella—of soldiers. As the word was adopted by French, it morphed through analogy with the word corona (crown) into various versions including colonel and coronel. This may have been because colonel positions are often “conferred upon…princes of royal blood.” (OED) That shade of meaning gave it both a phonetic and a semantic similarity to hold onto when it was deciding what it wanted to be.
I find it really interesting that we kept the spelling with “l” but the pronunciation with “r.” If you have always wondered why it should be so, you’re welcome.
Apologies to all my intrepid readers for my dearth of posts lately. All my energy is getting sucked up by the career transition. I’m still thinking about words, but it’s been harder to write about them.