Capitonyms Are Separate Cases

By Mark Nichol

Some words, in a class called capitonyms, have distinct meanings or senses when they are capitalized as opposed to generic senses. Writers should take care to render these words as appropriate to the context.

Among capitonyms are several words denoting astronomical bodies. For example, one writes that Earth is orbited by the Moon and in turn orbits the Sun. However, when we refer to the surface soil of that planet, or employ an idiom such as “down to earth,” the proper form is earth. Likewise, if we write about the planet’s satellite or the star around which our world orbits, but from the terrestrial perspective, we generally lowercase the names — for example, “The moon is full tonight” and “The sun passed behind the clouds.” (References to moons and suns beyond our solar system are also lowercased.)

Geographical capitonyms include arctic, often capitalized in reference to Earth’s northern regions but generic when referring to cold temperature or mood (Antarctic, by contrast, is generally styled as a proper noun), and alpine, which is capitalized only in reference to the Alps, in Europe.

In politics, such words as democratic, republican, conservative, liberal, socialist, and communist, generic references to concepts of political thought that serve as nouns and adjectives, are capitalized when referring to a political organization or a member of such an organization.

The treatment of god depends on whether one refers to a deity in general or to that of the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism). In philosophical or religious contexts, words for qualities such as truth and beauty are often capitalized to signal the significance of the conceptual connotation.

Another religious term that may or may not be capitalized is mass, referring to a religious ceremony. It is often capitalized when referring to a specific religious ceremony (for example, “High Mass”) but is lowercased in generic references to such events (“He performed several masses”), as is the word when it refers to the unrelated meaning of physical phenomena.

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3 Responses to “Capitonyms Are Separate Cases”

  • Matt Gaffney

    I strongly disagree with the notion that it’s all right to lowercase “mass” when writing about non-specific Masses; however, since G&C Merriam-Webster reports that non-specific, generic references referring to Christian celebrations of the Eucharist may indeed be lowercased, it’s deemed acceptable.

    Am I mistaken to think that the lowercased, non-specific use of “mass” to describe an uppercased celebration–the Eucharist–is verbal irony?

    I suppose the logical extension of the rule re “mass” means it is all right to write that “many christmases and easters have come and gone since I was your age.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    So many people just don’t give a hoot about proper practices in capitalizing anything. I really mean it:
    They don’t even capitalize words like American, Brazilian, Canadian, Danish, English, French, German, Hungarian, and Mexican.

    Putting that to the side for now, many of the cases mentioned above have to do with proper nouns vs. common nouns. Some people just don’t get it concerning the Conservative Party, the Democratic Party, the Labor Party**, the Liberal Party, and the Fascist Party.
    **Spelled correctly in Australia.

    It is also true that in computer networking, there is a difference between the Internet and an internet. An internet is much smaller.

    If what the author is addressiing above are “capitonyms”, then what are these called – ones that are pronounced as words: ALCOA, LEM, NASA, NASCAR, NATO, NORAD, OSHA, and formerly, SAC, TAC, MAC, HUD, PAL and SECAM.
    A long, long time ago – back during the 1930s and early 40s, there was something called RADAR, but that quickly morfed into the common noun radar. Sonar might have been written in all capitals at one time, too.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    The writers of the distionaries for spell-checkers most frequently do not know that the adjectives for all of the planets are common nouns:
    mercurian, venusian, terrestrial, martian, jovian, saturnian, uranian, neptunian, and plutonian.
    However, the names for the hypothetical races of intelligent beings living on those places are proper nouns: Mercurian, Venusian, Martian, Jovian, Saturnian, Uranian, Neptunian, and Plutonian.

    The space probe Pioneer 10 carried a gold-plated plaque with scientific information engraved on it, and also the images of a nude man and a nude woman. Making fun of this, a noted cartoonist drew a cartoon in which Pioneer 10 had crashed on Jupiter and been discovered by a couple of Jovians. There was a man in a two-piece suit and a woman in a knee-length dress with high heels.
    The caption read, “The people on the Earth are just like us, except that they don’t wear any clothes!”

    As for adjectives that refer to our planet, we have several, with some coming from Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxon, French, etc:
    earthly, earthlike, terrestrial, gaian

    I have also noticed that many spell-checkers do not recognize that:
    Monterrey is the name of a large city in northern Mexico, and
    Monterey is the name of a city and a county in coastal California.
    By the way, the county seat of Monterey County is Salinas, and that name was made famous in a song by JANIS JOPLIN.
    The one time that I was ever in Salinas was in the midst of garlic-harvesting season, and the whole area reeked of garlic. I will never forget it. They area around the city of Monterey is well-known because of the several fantastic golf courses around it and the fantastic Monterey Bay and its aquarium along its shores.

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