Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language

May 5 2016 3:00 PM

Why This Copy Editor Will Capitalize Your Name Whether You Like It or Not

Last month the National Weather Service made the long-overdue decision to cease delivering its forecasts entirely in capital letters. (Its all-caps screeds were relics of a time when weather reports were sent by teleprinter.) As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes in its announcement, “[I]n web speak, use of capital letters became synonymous with angry shouting.” Online, we type in all caps when we’re enraged—ARE YOU SERIOUS?!—or overjoyed—YESSSSSSS—or amused—LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL.

It’s not just online or in all-caps constructions that capital letters carry emotional weight. Elsewhere, we capitalize words to give them gravity. Capitalization elevates nouns from common to proper: It’s not just a white house; it’s the White House. We don’t simply live in a collection of some united states, but in the United States. Charles Dickens didn’t just write a tale about a couple of cities; he wrote A Tale of Two Cities—and for that matter, Charles Dickens isn’t charles dickens, but Charles Dickens. Capital letters set these words apart and demarcate their uniqueness. There are many white houses but only one White House. There are millions of charles but only one Charles Dickens.


Of course this is but one way we use capital letters, which are seemingly one of the simpler stylistic choices in the English language. As Bryan A. Garner notes in his grammarians’ gospel Modern American Usage, “The decision whether to capitalize a word seems simple at first. There are really just three rules: capitalize the first word of a sentence, the pronoun I, and proper names. What could be easier?”

But beneath this elementary rule lies a complex web of exceptions and stylistic politics. Or as Garner puts it: “Then the ‘yeah-but’ bug bites.” We capitalize the Supreme Court, for instance, and on subsequent reference some (including Slate staff writer Mark Joseph Stern) would say we should call it the Court. But in that second reference, we’ve passed from the proper back to the common and it’s once again a court, at least according to Slate’s in-house style rules. Garner cites other examples: Why is Stone Age capitalized but space age not? October stands at attention but autumn lies low. It was the Roaring Twenties but the golden age of radio. In German, all nouns are capitalized! For the most part, these are questions of style and consistency with little ultimate consequence beyond the copy desk.  

Occasionally, however, capitalization becomes political—and I mean truly political, beyond the fraught internal politics and meta-dramas of grammar sticklers. In 2010 Jon Lackman wrote in Slate about how Tea Party members favored capitalizing common nouns to pay homage to the Constitution and associate themselves with the Founding Fathers.

While some lean on excess capitalization, others shy from it entirely: When Gloria Jean Watkins took on a pen name, she chose to style it as bell hooks, sans initial capital letters, in order to draw attention to her work rather than herself. “When the feminist movement was at its zenith in the late 60’s and early 70’s, there was a lot of moving away from the idea of the person. It was: let’s talk about the ideas behind the work, and the people matter less,” she said in a 2012 interview.

Perhaps most famously, modernist poet E.E. Cummings eschewed capitalization in many of his poems, often downgrading the word i—“I’m a small eye poet,” he once wroteand occasionally signing his name in lowercase. This stance became so entwined with his persona that his name is often rendered e.e. cummings and an entire apocryphal story about his name change persists online and in our collective conscious. (His wife insisted this never happened.)

Cummings’ stance against capitalizing his own name may be a myth, but in the years since, others have chosen, like Gloria Jean Watkins, to take on lowercased pen or stage names—k.d. lang, eden ahbez, will.i.am.—for various reasons. To draw attention away from the self and toward one’s work, yes, but also to free oneself from the confines of an elitist linguistic tradition that has left these individuals feeling othered. Some have gone as far as to legally change their names; social media scholar and activist danah boyd comes to mind. “[I]t’s my name and i should be able to frame it as i see fit, as my adjective, not someone else’s,” she writes on her website as part of an explanation of the personal and political reasons for her name change.

Names are, indeed, highly personal and individual things, and I don’t deny that they can wield great power. They’ve been the vessel through which our patriarchal society has traveled; they’ve been bestowed by slavers and reclaimed by the once-enslaved; they’ve segregated us; they’ve united us; and they’ve been the battleground on which many a feminist victory was won.

But in standard print, capitalizing these proper names is not an act of violence nor of authoritarianism nor of betrayal. It is simply an attempt at clarity. “Capitalization is part of the social convention for writing English,” writes Bill Poser at the Language Log. When a reader opens up an article or a blog post here at Slate or elsewhere, she does so with the expectation that it will conform to these “social conventions” of written English—certain norms and syntactic cues that will help digest the information therein as easily as possible. Capitalization is one of those cues. When I capitalize Danah Boyd or Bell Hooks, it’s not meant as an affront on those women but as an overture to the reader.

That’s not to say I would ever prescribe to them how they should sign their own names or monogram their bath towels or print up their own business cards, but in the public square that is the news media, we’ve all agreed to play by certain rules. And now even the National Weather Service is on board. Next up: the music industry.

May 4 2016 9:00 AM

Why Do We Delete the Initial Pronoun From Our Sentences? Glad You Asked.

Something has been mysteriously absent from many of my recent emails: me. Hope all is well with you, I write, conveniently erasing myself as the subject of the sentence. Agree with Bob’s critiques. Would love to read a post on this. Can do in an hour. Look forward to reading.

Wherefore the shyness, the equivocation? Was I too busy to report for duty as a grammatical element in these statements? Was I pretending to a kind of universal authority by recusing myself? The eternal star systems in their metagalactic repose look forward to reading. And what of the messages in which I dropped the second person? Want to email the publicist? Did I hope not to symbolically conscript the recipient of the message into emailing the publicist, even though I really did need him to email the publicist? (He emailed the publicist; it was fine.) Or was I attempting to seem less grandiose, more briskly no-frills, more collaborative? Omitting the opening pronoun is not unlike leaving off an assertion’s end punctuation, as if to humbly suggest that your thoughts don’t rise to the level of a complete sentence.

May 2 2016 2:11 PM

Celebrating the Bard’s Crudest Moments

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing. 

Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil. Across the globe, bardolators are observing the date—if not the whole month, nay, year—with various celebrations of his momentous legacy. Meanwhile, you might find some tortured high-schoolers and scholars of, you know, other Elizabethan playwrights celebrating his actual death.

I thought I’d honor Stratford’s greatest son (deal with it, millennials-upon-Avon) by celebrating not his loftiest lines but some of his crudest, as I have been periodically doing on Strong Language. I can think of no better work for the special occasion than his two-part history, Henry IV. From prostitutes in London taverns to magicking rebels in Wales, Shakespeare dizzies us with a rich array of characters, settings, and voices in Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2. Nothing, though, quite stands out like the sleazing, boozing, and wheezing Sir John Falstaff—and not just for his size. The fat knight’s girth yields some larger-than-life mirth, if we look to some the insults his companions throw at the “fat-kidneyed rascal” (1H4 2.2.6).

April 28 2016 8:22 AM

A New Play Will Scramble Your View of How Language Means, Mystifies, and Falls Short    

How can we come together if all our words are corrupt? Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., by British playwright Alice Birch, poses that question in ways that are fascinating even if you can’t make it to a performance at Soho Rep in Manhattan. (If you can, though, do.) The play, having its U.S. premiere, is a puckish, yet deadly serious meditation on how language molds our experience of sex and gender, a scalding cascade of interconnected vignettes exploring words and their limits.

Start with the script, a flat notation of actors’ voices, a dead thing.

“There should be at least one female character (that should probably be played by a female actor) in every scene,” the first page insists. The instructions march on: A dash indicates a change in speaker (the script refuses to assign particular lines to particular characters), words in square brackets are not spoken. “Most importantly,” Birch writes, “this play should not be well behaved.”

April 26 2016 1:00 PM

Four Femmes on the Thames

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing

The Four Femmes on the Thames are a cabaret-style group who specialize in old-style jazz and swing music with a comedy twist. Their song “Woman Up” was described by Holly Brockwell at Gadgette as the sweary feminist anthem of the year. I’m sure you can see the Strong Language angle (and appeal) already.

The title, if you’re wondering, inverts the sexist idiom man up, and instead of grow a pair the Femmes suggest that people grow a twat, recalling a quip (“Grow a vagina—those things can take a pounding”) often misattributed to Betty White. The song is a three-minute NSFW delight; lyrics and more below the fold:

April 26 2016 8:00 AM

We’re Quoting the Wrong Shakespearean Prince to Honor Prince    

Prince’s sudden and shocking death last week prompted an outpouring of responses on social media, with one particularly widespread commemoration taking the form of the quote: “Good night, sweet prince.” While the words make for a pithy and tender remembrance, you’ll agree, if you’re familiar with the source of the saying, that they simply call up the wrong prince for Prince.

Another genius gave us “Good night, sweet prince”: William Shakespeare, who also died at a tragically young age, 52, at least by our modern standards. Like Prince, Shakespeare was an artistic polymath, writing, performing, and producing many of his works. The phrase appears in Hamlet, which features such hits as “to be or not to be,” “infinite jest,” “the lady doth protest too much,” “to sleep, perchance to dream,” “something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” and “words, words, words.” These lines, and many more, have become so ingrained in the English language that it’s as if they’ve always existed. We can forget Shakespeare even wrote them, just as many of us were surprised to learn Prince, aside from his own hits, authored the Bangles classic “Manic Monday.”

Most of these Hamlet hits are spoken, in the epic guitar solo that is the Shakespearean soliloquy, by the play’s title character. But not, of course, “Good night, sweet prince.” Spoiler alert: After Hamlet dies in the final scene’s bloodbath, his friend Horatio offers: “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,/ And flights of angels sing these to thy rest.–” (Hamlet 5.2.302-03). These are tender lines, and mellifluous, too. But I think we are hanging too much on surface similarities in this passage.

April 22 2016 10:59 AM

Fat-Shaming in Shakespearean Dialogue

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing

Men: How far we haven’t come. 

During the Utah caucuses last month, a super PAC supporting presidential candidate Ted Cruz attacked his Republican counterpart, Donald Trump, with an advertisement featuring a nude photograph of Trump’s wife, Melania. In keeping with a long-evidenced pattern of misogyny, Trump responded by retweeting photographs that suggested Cruz’s wife, Heidi, is less attractive than Melania.

Little has changed, it seems, in 400 years: Not even the great William Shakespeare was above shaming women on the basis of their looks, if his The Comedy of Errors is any measure. But at least he left us with some memorable wordplay, I suppose.

April 22 2016 7:30 AM

The Surreal, Dionysian Poetry of Prince’s Lyrics

“All art aspires to the condition of music,” wrote Walter Pater, and Prince’s lyrics are as hot and dreamlike and weird as his sound. Saturated in color, wild with bizarre imagery, they overload the senses and short-circuit the brain. Rolling Stone described the Purple One’s aesthetic as “sensual anarchy,” a phrase that helps capture the intoxicating drive of his poetry. (What if not poetry would you call these lines from “Raspberry Beret”: “Now, overcast days never turned me on/ But something about the clouds and her mixed.”) Prince told us to move and dance and fuck our way to utopia, to grind “until the castle started spinning/ or maybe it was just my brain.”

He was our Dionysus, and his lyrics were full of beasts. “You’re just as soft as a lion tamed,” he crooned. “Take me to the place where your horses run free,” he begged. And he saw in color: red corvettes, pink cashmere, purple rain, purple everything. Prince understood T.S. Eliot’s notion of the objective correlative, the concrete object that stands for a chaotic, vibrant mass of emotions. “She wore a raspberry beret,” he sang, and once it was worn he didn’t say much more.

April 18 2016 11:17 AM

From Theater to Therapy to Twitter, the Eerie History of Gaslighting    

In the 1938 play Gas Light, a felonious man seeks to convince his wife that her mind is unraveling. When she notices that he’s dimmed the gaslights in the house, he tells her she is imagining things—they are as bright as they were before. The British play became a 1944 American film starring Ingrid Bergman as the heroine, Paula, and Charles Boyer as Gregory, her abusive, crazy-making husband.

A match struck; a metaphor flickered to life. Gas Light reminded viewers how uniquely terrifying it can be to mistrust the evidence of your senses. Flame made an evocative figure for Paula’s consciousness—her sense of self guttering when Gregory insisted she hadn’t seen what she saw.

Today to gaslight means to overwrite someone’s reality, to manipulate her into believing she’s imagining things. Remember the traveling salesman who bade the common folk marvel at the glamorous weeds of their naked emperor? (If they couldn’t see the clothes, it had to be their fault—they were bad at their jobs.) Prototypical gaslighter. The term can attach to anything surreal enough to make you question your sanity, like the political news cycle, but gaslight arose from psychoanalytic literature, where it described a specific “transfer” of psychic conflicts from the perpetrator to the victim. In a 1981 article called “Some Clinical Consequences of Introjection: Gaslighting,” psychologist Edward Weinshel sketched out the dysfunctional dance: One person “externalizes and projects,” while the other “incorporates and assimilates.”* Introjection was Weinshel’s Freudian update to the kindergarten song “I’m rubber, you’re glue,” a name for the process by which a single player absorbs all the fault, irrationality, and madness in a relationship.

April 7 2016 3:31 PM

The Alliterative Appeal of the “Flying F--k”

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing. 

What exactly is a flying fuck? And why does this fuck fly? Flying fuck enjoys many fun literal interpretations. Gadget-heads might like the remote-controlled helicopter featured above, craftier folk this flying fuck lovingly fashioned from “wire hate,” both as Nancy Friedman shared with me.

Urban Dictionary offers a number of humorous entries for flying fuck, too, including a rare, African “flightless bird” and a rather acrobatic sex act. Speaking of birds, some do hook up midflight (at least as part of courtship)—not unlike the more adventurous frequent fliers among us. Creativity (and Mother Nature) aside, the earliest record of flying fuck is, in fact, a literal one. But let’s save the best for last.