Why Is Colonel Pronounced With an R? And More Questions From Our Readers

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(Traci Daberko)
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Why is the word “colonel” pronounced with an “r” sound when it is not spelled with an “r”?
Peter Reyman
Shelton, Connecticut

“Colonel” came to English from the mid-16th-century French word coronelle, meaning commander of a regiment, or column, of soldiers. By the mid-17th century, the spelling and French pronunciation had changed to colonnel. The English spelling also changed, and the pronunciation was shortened to two syllables. By the early 19th century, the current pronunciation and spelling became standard in English. (But in the part of Virginia I come from, there is no “r” sound; it’s pronounced kuh-nul.)
David Miller
Curator, Armed Forces History, National Museum of American History

What are the boundaries (and the differences) between the earth’s oceans and seas? For example, where does the Bering Sea end and the Pacific Ocean begin?
Mary Czolgosz,
Davenport, Iowa

What separates a sea from an ocean is, literally, a fluid boundary: Geographers define a sea as a portion of an ocean that is partially enclosed by land, and they define the “entrance” to that sea as the imaginary line between the two closest points of land at the mouth. Some landlocked bodies of water are also called seas—think of the Dead Sea or the Caspian Sea—and not lakes because they’re composed of saltwater.
Douglas Herman
Senior Geographer, National Museum of the American Indian

The answer…and why you should care

Do nonhuman animals hiccup?
Brian Cha
Seattle, Washington

Yes, primates other than humans can hiccup—our orangutans do so regularly.
Meredith Bastian
Great Ape Curator, National Zoo

If the earth disappeared, what would happen to the moon?
Richard Grant
Farmers Branch, Texas

Not much, actually. While our oceans are drawn into tides by the moon’s gravity, the moon’s solid crust deforms only slightly due to the earth’s pull. Lunar libration—the very slow wobbling caused by the gravitational locking between the moon and the earth—would stop. But the moon would still rotate each month and orbit the sun.
Bruce Campbell
Geophysicist, Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, National Air and Space Museum

Were Neanderthals and Homo sapiens different species? If they mated, could they produce fertile offspring?
Nancy L. Karr
Las Vegas, Nevada

The two had separate gene pools, and so had little chance of producing fertile offspring. Scientists have traced some genetic exchange between the two lineages to a very short period between 45,000 to 65,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens first spread to Eurasia. But there’s no evidence of any gene exchange from then until the Neanderthals became extinct, around 30,000 years ago.
Rick Potts
Paleoanthropologist and Curator, Hall of Human Origins, National Museum
of Natural History

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