When capitalisation actually makes a difference

There is a curious poem in the book titled The Word Circus, written by Richard Lederer, and published in 1998. Called “Job’s Job”, it goes something like:

In August, an august patriarch

Was reading an ad in Reading, Mass.

Long-suffering Job secured a job

To polish piles of Polish brass.

Richard Lederer, in The Word Circus, 1998

While seeming like a nice poem about word play, it also underscores a curious characteristic in our orthography. That of capitalisation.

In English, capitalisation occurs at the beginning of a sentence, along with a whole bunch of other rules surrounding nouns (the easiest way to explain this is proper nouns like a person called John), pronouns (like I), and adjectives (like ethnicities, nationalities, religions). But there are times when capitalisation can change the meaning of the word entirely. This is known as a “capitonym”.

A portmanteau of the word “capital” and the suffix “-onym” that you would find in words like “synonym”, and “antonym”, a capitonym is a word which meaning, and occasionally, pronunciation, changes when it is capitalised. But in cases where both words are to be capitalised (like the beginning of the sentence), there is practically no way to distinguish these words other than from context.

Many of these examples can be found in philosophical, religious, and political words, where capitalisation is used, for example, to separate or distinguish philosophical concepts from how these concepts are referred to in daily life. In politics, capitalisation often distinguishes a political party from the ideology or philosophy. Think about parties like Labour Party, compared to labour, as in the labour movement in politics.

These categories aside, capitonyms also exist in words (capitalised ones) that specify languages, nationalities, or ethnicities. One example is Mandarin, a language spoken widely in Northern and Western China, and mandarin, which is a name of a citrus fruit similar to an orange. Another would be Cancer, a constellation and an astrological sign, and also is the genus name for crabs. Compare this to cancer, which is a class of diseases involving abnormal cell growth that can potentially invade or spread (metastasise) to other parts of the body. For words that change pronunciation when capitalised, examples can be found in the pairs celt/Celt, august/August, ares/Ares, and polish/Polish.

In other languages that do use uppercase and lowercase letters, the frequency of capitonyms varies a bunch. On one extreme, German nouns are always capitalised, while on the other, you would find some of the Romance languages, that tend to capitalise relatively fewer words, like proper nouns. In Spanish, you would find the word lima, which can translate to “lime” or a “file (think, nail file)”, which has a separate meaning compared to the capital city of Peru, Lima. In Portuguese, you have the country Peru, contrasted with the word peru, meaning a “turkey (bird)”.

So this has been a little dive into a curious category of words, which I first read about after seeing it as a “fun fact” shared in a Discord server. Hopefully you learnt something new today, and we will be back next week for another linguistic titbit.

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