Answer Man

Breaking the sword of a military man? Thanks to a trick, it’s a snap

French officer Alfred Dreyfus shown during his degradation ceremony in 1894, when he was stripped of his rank and his sword broken for supposedly passing information to the Germans.
French officer Alfred Dreyfus shown during his degradation ceremony in 1894, when he was stripped of his rank and his sword broken for supposedly passing information to the Germans.

Q: When a military officer is punished, TV programs and movies often show a ceremony during which his superiors break his sword by snapping it across a knee. Whether you’re talking about the old Romans or the U.S. Calvary or the Japanese samurai, I would think their swords would be their most prized possession and would be made far stronger than something that could be broken like a plastic toy. So could this actually happen or is this simply dramatic license?

S.L., of Belleville

A: Yes, it could — if given a little help.

Let’s take one of the most infamous degradation incidents in history: that of Alfred Dreyfus. If you’ve ever seen the riveting 1958 movie “I Accuse!” with José Ferrer, you’ll remember that Dreyfus was a French Jewish artillery officer who in 1894 was arrested for passing information to the Germans. Less than three months later, Dreyfus was convicted of treason in a secret court-martial and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island in French Guiana.

“I swear I am innocent!” cried Dreyfus, who would be pardoned after a second trial in 1899 and fully exonerated in 1906 when officials more or less acknowledged that the real traitor had been allowed to flee the country in a government cover-up years before. “I am worthy of serving in the Army. Long live France! Long live the Army!”

Despite his protests, his fellow officers followed custom of the day by tearing his insignia, buttons and braid from his uniform — and breaking his sword while onlookers screamed insults. But how did they so easily rip off all those decorations, which surely must have been stitched tightly to his uniform? And how did they snap his sword, which, when made well, is highly flexible? A New York Times article on the “Degradation of Dreyfus” on Jan. 6, 1895, reveals the answer:

“To prepare for stripping the prisoner of his insignia of rank, the prison tailor yesterday removed all the buttons and stripes from Dreyfus’ tunic, the red stripes from his trousers and the regimental number and braid from his collar and cap. These were all replaced with a single stitch so that they could be torn away readily. The condemned man’s sword was also filed almost in two, in order that it might be easily broken. The Adjutant’s quick movement and apparent effort in breaking the sword was consequently mere pretense, as only a mere touch was necessary.”

So there you have it: When an officer was stripped of rank, his sword was apparently deeply notched with a file in preparation, which, I suppose like a magic trick, sort of spoils the dramatic effect when you learn the secret, don’t you think? But it may have saved at least one man from a concussion. When Francis Mitchell, thought to be the last British man to be stripped of his knighthood, went through his degradation ceremony in 1621, they broke his spurs, cut his belt and, according to one account, broke his sword — over his head.

Q: The word “colonel” is pronounced “kernel.” Why is it pronounced this way even though there is no “r” in colonel?

T.L., of Collinsville

A: As you probably discovered early in life, English was brewed up from a melting pot of many languages. The seemingly inexplicable difference in the way we spell and pronounce colonel is a product of two of those languages butting heads long ago.

Back in the 1500s, the word “colonel” in reference to a military commander was originally spelled “coronel” — and, thus, pronounced “kernel” — by many. We borrowed it from the Middle French “coronel” (or “coronelle”), which was similar to the Spanish “coronel.”

But here’s the problem: Back then, English spelling still was not standardized. You couldn’t reach for your Webster’s and find a universally agreed-upon spelling. So while some people said and wrote “coronel,” others spelled it “colonel” or even “colonnel,” based on the Italian military rank “colonnello.” (A “colonnello” was a column of soldiers in Old Italian from the Latin “columnella” for a “small column.”)

It is thought that eventually the two usages completely diverged, leaving us with the confusing result we have today. By the time English spelling was standardized, the Italian written form had won out while the Middle French pronunciation became most popular — perhaps because it simply is easier to say “coronel” than “colonel.”

Christmas gift: O’Fallon is playing Santa Claus in reverse Saturday, Dec. 3, for those looking to discard their old electronics in an environmentally responsible way before the holidays. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., you can bring computers, electric motors, DVD players, VCRs, any small electronics with a power cord along with keyboards, speakers, cables, etc. to St. Nicholas Catholic Church. It’s free except for TVs, which will cost $5-$20 depending on size. And you don’t even have to wrap them. Call 402-7000 for information.

Today’s trivia

Do you remember the name of the old TV Western which started each week by showing a court-martialed man’s sword being broken over his superior’s knee?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: It may be hard to imagine, but the wristwatch dates back to at least 1571 when Queen Elizabeth I reportedly received an “arm watch” from her close friend, Robert Dudley. The oldest surviving wristwatch is apparently one made in 1806 and given to Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife, Josephine. Early on, wristwatches were thought of as a woman’s accessory while men favored pocket-watches.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer