I have a colleague who uses capital letters more often than anyone I know. She writes sentences like ‘The Minutes of the Meeting are stored on the Folder under Team Meetings.’ I noticed that it only happens with nouns. When I politely pointed out this habit she just laughed. She said it’s because she’s German. When growing up, she and her classmates were taught that all nouns require a capital letter. Writing in English, she can’t quite break the habit. It reminds me of people who learned touch-typing before the days of computers; even now, a few of them can’t resist adding an extra space between words.
But my colleague’s observation got me thinking. Why do we have even have capital letters? They’re neither logical nor consistent.
When to capitalise and when not to? Everyone has an opinion, and not just native Germans. Then I discovered that English used to follow the same rule as our Anglo-Saxon cousins. Why?
In those olden—very olden—days we never needed to worry because the literate few wrote in runes. All letters were capitals. Okay, most of our ancestors couldn’t read. But, by Mithras, those who could write never had to fret about capitalisation.
It was only when scribes began writing quickly instead of chipping away at stone did the letters begin to round up into a script we now call an ‘uncial’: all the rage circa the fourth century AD, when scribing was done in Greek, Latin and Gothic characters.
What led this change? Well, mostly technology.
Scribes began to use the newly available smooth parchment and vellum surfaces. That is when we sped up and when certain problems began. Our early script evolved from Roman cursive writing because the paper was mightier than the papyrus.
Writing in various contexts, scribes routinely placed a capital letter at the start of sentences, and used a capital for all nouns, as in German. They also often used a larger, and even a different, script for capitalised words.
But were they the first to do so? Until the eighteenth century, scholars assumed that uncials were the foundation for ‘running writing’ that caught on during the eight century AD, during the reign of Charles the Great, known as Charlemagne. But after the discovery of ancient Herculaneum in the mid-1700s, archaeologists unearthed writing remnants that predated 79 AD—when Mt Vesuvius erupted, destroying the town—which showed evidence of letters that we would now call ‘lower case’.
Aha. That phrase arrived with the printing press and moveable type. Individual blocks of type used by compositors were kept in boxes or drawers, and stored according to typeface and letter. Cases were placed on a rack for typesetting: capitals on top, other letters below. Thus do we derive our terms for upper and lower case.
So when are we supposed to use capitals today, according to the conventions of formal English?
Apart from beginning a sentence and for proper nouns, there is no universal standard. This explains the needs for in-house style guides and usage guides to point the way for employees. Computers and social networking have introduced new sets of conventions, such as ALL CAPS MEANS SHOUTING. Some people use capital letters for emphasis. Some use them for reasons of status. Some just have a nagging feeling of obligation. One’s immediate boss might expect the written title of Manager, even though there is no logical reason for a capital letter. Likewise people sometimes feel in duty bound to refer to the President or the Prime Minister, even though no name is attached, and there is a long list of prime ministers and presidents on the honour roll. Perhaps this habit harks back to a child-parent dependency or an atavistic forelock-tug of deference. To refer to a deity as ‘God’ certainly distinguishes a monotheistic entity from a mere ‘god,’ as the latter is usually one of several. Yet we’re inconsistent even in our grammar. Why do we use a capital for ‘I’ but not for ‘you’? And why ‘I’ but not ‘my’? Illogical.
Proper names capitalised: now that makes sense, or at least as much sense as any capitalisation does. But what about the common habit of capitalising generic items like seasons, products, locations and subjects? I have often seen people write Spring rather than spring, Cola rather than cola, Road rather than road, and History rather than history. Can I attribute this to a general anxiety about correctness and an understandable yearning for logic in our habits of capitalisation?
Then there are the rebels: e e cummings, k d lang and art speigelman. Who says they’re right or wrong to spurn the convention of capital letters? After all, plenty of well-known brands indulge in the same orthographic unorthodoxy (e.g. iPod and eBay).
Acronyms also lack consistency. Sometimes they are not capitalised (e.g. radar, scuba and sonar), though initialisms always are (e.g. FBI, CIA and USA). And capitonyms change meaning when capitalised. Do Swedes eat swedes? Do Turks eat turkey? Is the month of August particularly august? Just how catholic is the Catholic Church? Is the Liberal Party particularly liberal? How much boxing is done on Boxing Day? Just how nice is Nice? Are people born under the sign of Cancer at any greater risk of cancer? Do Italians use italics more than anyone else? Are we more inclined to attend a march in March? Did Moses make any mosaics? (see earlier blog on this one)
‘Capital’ letters flow from the same word source that gave us ‘captain,’ ‘capitalism,’ ‘capitulate,’ ‘capsule,’ ‘decapitate’, ‘caption,’ and ‘capture’. We need all those words. But do we really need capital letters? Yes, they can save confusion but they often create confusion.
To close my one hundredth post in Teutonic fashion: Will Changes in Technology see Upper- and Lower-Case Distinctions sent One Day to the Curiosity-Bin of History?
Visited once again by the ghost of Mrs Malaprop (see earlier blog on the lovely lady from Sheridan’s play The Rivals), I’ve been reading odd expressions of late, usually from a mis-transcription of everyday phrases.
Twice this year I’ve seen ‘mind due’ written. On both occasions I was taken aback. Or WTF, as some would say. Obviously it’s a mishearing of ‘mind you,’ but upon reflection I can’t regard it as wrong. The original (or correct, or standard version) makes about as much sense. It’s a kind of verbal pause, another way of saying ‘on the other hand’. So I’m not sure if the Malaprop muse has struck.
Mind due, here’s another howler: ‘we need to change tact’. Yeah but no but yeah but no… as the character Vicky from Little Britain might say. ‘Changing tact’ might be exactly what the speaker or writer means; a form of altered stance or attitude perhaps, instead of a course correction. It might be a genuine mistake or it might be a clever pun.
Alas, the same excuse cannot be made for ‘undermind’. Not only is this one an unambiguous malapropism, it’s also dumb. To ‘undermine’ is a legitimate verb. What kind of numb-nut considers ‘undermind’ a verb? It’s not even the opposite to ‘never mind’.
There are genuinely funny malapropisms around, such as ‘gnome’ for ‘genome’ and ‘coma’ for ‘comma’. I’ve read ‘martial law’ as ‘marital law’—surely dangerous territory—while ‘evangelical pasta’ is one of my all-time favourites. ‘Scrabble for power’ is one I’ve heard several times now, conjuring images of warring word-game tribes. Wouldn’t Game of Thrones be more intellectually satisfying if the central conflict was a squabble over Scrabble instead of a damn throne? I did read of a female comedian who said ‘without fear of contraception’ but as this was a genuine play for laughs it’s not strictly eligible for the Malaprop trophy cabinet. It doesn’t deserve to be on display next to ‘prostate with grief’—though that one could go either way. Ouch.
Exam papers are a great source of malaproperties, such as Martin Luther on a ‘diet of worms’ or the woman enjoying a ‘bridle shower’. Then there’s the design of Gothic cathedrals supported by ‘flying butters’ or ‘flying buttocks’. And how can I forget Mother Mary McKillop who, after death was ‘beautified’ before becoming a saint—presumably, she needed to look her best for the occasion.