Romantically gothicky.

In Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s Sleepy Hollow Ichabod Crane is a British Officer who joined the American rebels under General George Washington to battle the English colonial powers, elements of which proved to be in league with demonic forces, including The Four Horseman, who are attempting to bring about the Apocalypse.

After a battle with The Horseman, Ichabod is unknowingly put into a sleep and hidden underground by his gorgeously gothic witchy wife, Katrina. He wakes up some 200 years later, in contemporary Sleepy Hollow and finds the battle against the demonic forces continues. After the beheading of Police Captain Corbin by the Headless Horseman, Crane joins forces with Sleepy Hollow police Lieutenant Abbie Mills, whom he addresses as Lef-tenant.

Despite being buried for 200 odd years, Ichabod’s 18th century frock coat, trousers and puffy shirt are still intact, and no one seems to have taken the time to take him shopping for a modern suit. Well, why would you? He’s so romantically, handsomely gothic in his anachronistic outfit. Ichabod also sports a delightful English manner of speech, with a charming archaic turn of phrase, and a bemused, arched eyebrow, raised at the highly dubious foibles of the modern world. He readily adjusts to the modern world, brought up to speed using the traditional method of a TV watching montage, however, and despite frequent usage, no one seems to take the time to to correct him on the modern American pronunciation of “Lieutenant”.


Mr. Crane, I’m Lieutenant Abbie Mills.

A female lieutenant. In whose army?

You’re not gonna break character, huh?

You’ve been emancipated, I take it?

Excuse me?

From enslavement.

Okay. I’ll play along here. I am a black female lieutenant for the Westchester County Police Department. Do you see this gun? I’m authorized to use it. On you.


Lieutenant means second in command, or one who holds the place of the commanding officer when that officer is away or no longer able to command. Although with the same spelling, and with the same origin in the French, from lieu, meaning “place” and tenant meaning “holding”, since around the time of the American Revolution British and American pronunciation has diverged.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary,  leuf is a variant spelling of lieu, tracing the pronunciation back to its Old French and Middle English usage around the 12th century shows that both the English lef-tenant and the American lew-tenant were both in use.

After The American War Of Independence, waged over a 2% taxation on wealthy traders and land owners rather than, as Sleepy Hollow asserts, against mad King George III and his demonic allies, there was a strong social movement for the United States to differentiate itself culturally from the old order. Noah Webster, who published his first dictionary in 1806, produced the first comprehensive American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, also wrote and published many of the first American spelling, grammar and school readers.

Webster’s first dictionary was filled with the zeal of a language reformer, and applied both aesthetics and logic to the inconsistencies of the English language, attempting to spell words closer to the way they sounded. He also resented that American schools, in post-revolutionary America, were still filled with British textbooks. Some of the changes in his first dictionary A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, took things a little too far, words such as ake instead of ache, cloke instead of cloak and wimmen instead of women, did not take root with the American public. Other simplifications, jail rather than gaol, mask instead of masque, music instead of musick, dropping the u from words like colour and humour, changing the double l at the end of verbs like travel and cancel were taken up by the American public, and many changes found their way back to mother English as well.

So, when Ichabod Crane says leftenant instead of lieutenant, the simple answer is, it’s the British pronunciation. Why Americans say lewtenant instead of leftenant is because of reformers like Noah Webster, who wanted not only to iron out the inconsistencies in English spelling and grammar, but also to create a distinctive, American language. Why no one has corrected him is simple as well. A handsome, quirky, well mannered gothic hero who talks in poetically archaic English and wears a romantically puffy shirt is absolutely more interesting than someone who talks like everyone else.

11 Responses

  1. Neil Kemp

    The dropping of the letter u in the spelling of words such as colour or honour is viewed as an Americanism in England, with the standpoint being that our spelling is, of course, true English. But does that make it sensible?
    I think we know and love the language we grow up with and that is always going to be the correct version in our mentality, so it is always going to be viewed over here that color and honor are just incorrect spellings. however, would we think that horrour is a correct spelling of horror? Of course not, but that is exactly how is was spelt until the u was discarded many years ago, so what is the difference?

    In many cases the American spellings of many English words make perfect sense and by being spelt as they sound make the English language easier to learn and understand.
    I think it’s only a matter of time before the u is dropped in all of these instances and future generations will look back on its use as baffled as we do now in regarding examples such as the word horrour.

  2. C S Hughes

    It’s a very complex thing, the way language, both spoken and written, develops over time. And until the creation of uniform dictionaries, grammars and schooling, spelling and grammatical rules were subject to much variation. Another factor is simply cost and convenience in the medium of reproduction. It was both cheaper and quicker for printers using movable lead type to drop the ‘u’. What effect the digital age will have on language is of course yet to be realized, however the loss of punctuation, and extreme homonymic abbreviation (as in ‘you’ to ‘u’) seem to be two changes that are part of the ongoing process.

  3. quigonkenny

    The reason why he isn’t “corrected” could be as simple as the fact that “leftenant” is a well-recognized Commonwealth pronunciation difference along the lines of aluminum/aluminium, or “zee”/”zed”, and—the occasional clarification or ribbing aside—most Americans, even particularly jingoistic ones, don’t feel the need to “correct” differing Commonwealth pronunciations or spellings. After all, there are some fairly radical dialectical differences present in the US itself.

  4. Underdogge

    Oh yes, Chaucer complained about the variety of ways of writing English and I’m sure a teacher said there were at least 3 different ways Shakespeare wrote his name. The American song “Route 66” has the word pronounced as “root” but on American TV shows when going from A to B I usually hear “rowt” to rhyme with “out”. I do hope the loo/leftenant made having a bath a priority after awakening. He must have been “ripe” after not washing for 200 years. I am not sure how well on the way to having a distinctive American accent [or groups of accents] the the United States were in 1776. I recall the late Charlton Heston talking about working on acquiring an English sounding accent for some part and mentioning that the American accent came from a British West Country accent as many early settlers (in America) came from there. I did hear a video by a British West Country woman including her saying “gotten” whereas it’s usually “got” in modern UK English. Though I have digressed as CS was largely adressing written English. In the UK we are influenced by TV Americanisms. Young UK people say “You guys” to include both males and females whereas “guys” for women seems alien to an oldster like me. I also like to use feminine versions of words. I would call a brave woman a “heroine” rather than a “hero” and a female thespian an “actress”, though a standard form of such words appears to be “trending” in modern English.

  5. C S Hughes

    I’m sure being dead and buried added a certain funk, but then he was under some kind of magical protection, which undoubtedly (or perhaps indubitably) included a very effective preservative, which extended to coat, shirt and trousers.
    They do say the language of Shakespearean times had a twang we would find more familiar in modern American rather than English.

  6. Underdogge

    Actually having commented here I went on to read CS’ article about Fargo and the Minnesota accent, which I am not familiar with. Long ago I “temped” for a company whose head office was in Minneapolis. When one of the big cheeses of the company was over in England a pair of words that caused confusion for him were “disc” and “desk” (though this was a Minneapolis citizen having a problem getting his ear in tune with a Wolverhampton English accent rather than an English person misunderstanding a Minnesota accent). Maybe Minneapolis,being a city, has a less pronounced version of the accent than the more rural parts of the state. I can’t recall having difficulty understanding the various American visitors when they came so they cannot have had very “broad” accents.

    Somebody I knew (born in Britain but of Polish blood) said that Polish had more cases than Latin. I mentioned this to another friend and somebody overhearing (not being a nosy parker, he just overheard) who had lived in Finland, said that Finnish had even more. My Polish is limited to Pan and Pani (Mr and Mrs) and my Finnish is non-existent so I cannot vouchsafe for the veracity of these statements, but don’t think the people had any reason to lie. I mention this because on the other thread CS links to a Wikipedia article which mentions Finnish [and other Scandinavian immigrants] having helped give rise to the Minnesota accent.

  7. Keln

    This is always a fun discussion to have with British friends. Americans generally don’t care one way or the other about spelling and language differences between ourselves and our cousins in the Commonwealth, but the British seem quite sensitive about it, which I find amusing when considering that the modern American and Australian/Kiwi forms of English as spoken are closer to 18th century English than the current accents in Britain today.

    It is believed by some linguists that the closest surviving dialect/accent to the “original” English of that colonial period is that which is spoken by the residents of the tiny Tangier and Smith Islands in the Chesapeake Bay of Virginia. It’s pretty difficult to understand when they are talking to each other at full speed, but they seem to adjust to a more clearly recognizable Tidewater English (still a bit bizarre) when addressing an outsider. It sounds neither American nor modern British really, although there are similarities with very deep American Southern and Appalachian accents. An interesting example is their pronunciation of the word “island”. When they say it, it almost sounds like “Ireland”. You can find examples of this peculiar accent on YouTube and Vimeo.

    • C S Hughes

      I will have a listen to some Tidewater English – it sounds fascinating. As to Australian accents being closer to older English dialects, that seems doubtful to me. Not only have we had an Anglocentric culture mirroring English culture, we’ve also grown up on American and English media, and Australian media which for many years required broadcasters to speak in language approaching English RP. From listening to reproductions by actors and linguists of the English of Elizabethan times, it sounded more like the Yorkshire accent than anything I’ve heard from the US or the Commonwealth.

  8. jenna k

    Just an odd coincidence that the first African American to serve in the Regular Army Nurse Corps was…. 1st Lt. Nancy C. Leftenant.


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