Grammar Guy

A feather in your capitonym

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Last week I wrote about the difference between “capital” and “capitol.” My research opened up a can of worms, which is what I wrote about two weeks ago. While researching when the word “capitol” needs to be capitalized I stumbled upon the topic of “capitonyms.”

Capitalization changes everything. A capitonym is a word whose meaning changes when its first letter is capitalized. Capitonym purists will tell you that, when capitalized, the capitonym’s pronunciation changes as well, as in the example of “polish” and “Polish.” I subscribe to the more inclusive definition that a capitonym’s pronunciation sometimes changes when the word is capitalized. Let’s look at some examples.

For some reason, some of the most notable capitonyms are months. Think about “march” and “March”; “august” and “August”; and “may” and “May.” When these words appear in their lowercase forms, they mean one thing; when they are capitalized, they are months in the Julian calendar. If you want to dive down a fun rabbit hole, look up the “year of confusion.” In the year 46 B.C., Julius Caesar decided he wanted to begin his new 12-month calendar the following year. As a result, 46 B.C. ended up lasting 455 days.

There’s another category of common capitonyms: place names. Whether we’re dealing with countries or cities. In the case of countries, we have “china” and “China”; and “turkey” and “Turkey.” I found a lengthy list of capitonym cities, but here are my favorites: “nice” and “Nice”; “mobile” and “Mobile”; “reading” and “Reading”; and “tangier” and “Tangier.” Interestingly, each of the cities I just listed takes a different pronunciation from each of their lowercase counterparts. If I wanted to break that pattern, I would have included “scone” (the delicious breakfast biscuit) and “Scone” (the city in Scotland). Perhaps this is where you can find the Scone of Destiny.

Still another batch of familiar capitonyms falls into the category of religious terminology. A “mosaic” is different from “Mosaic” Law. When something is “catholic,” it’s universal; when someone is “Catholic,” they belong to a global Christian denomination. “See” what I mean? What was Job’s job, anyway? Can I have the lawnmower back that I lent you around Lent? A mass of people attended Mass.

Once you delve into the world of capitonyms, you’ll notice them everywhere. You may even notice that it’s rainier up on Mt. Rainier.

 

Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life. Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.

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