Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Tea Party orthography: A Capital Idea?

In the latest "Good Word" column at Slate, Jon Lackman skips the "Teabonics" wisecracks and instead theorizes that the Tea Party members are capitalizing their nouns -- Freedom, Republic, etc. -- in imitation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
What capital-ist Tea Partiers fail to realize, however, is that their orthography imitates not Thomas Jefferson and James Madison but the far less famous Timothy Matlack and Jacob Shallus—a couple of secretaries. No one played a larger role in crafting the Declaration and the Constitution than Jefferson and Madison, respectively, but it was Matlack and Shallus who hand wrote the official, signed versions of these documents and freely recapitalized them as they saw fit. By contrast, in Jefferson's drafts of the Declaration, there's a striking absence of caps—he writes "life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness," for example. As H.L. Mencken noted, "nature and creator, and even god are in lower case."
Nice. And the author ID promises more language fun to come: "Jon Lackman is writing a doctoral dissertation on the use of invective in art criticism."

8 comments:

Kay L. Davies said...

Very interesting.

MJ said...

David Crystal notes that in the seventeenth century printers were confronted by "a grassroots trend among authors to capitalize on the basis of such subjective notions as the 'importance 'of a word in a particular context or whether the concept had been personified to some degree (Justice, Truth). The further into the seventeenth century we go, the worse the problem becomes." By the eighteenth century, capitalization of all sorts of nouns was widespread but completely erratic (there are apparently books in which all nouns are capitalized). As Celia Millard explains in her_Biography of the English Language_, "The first words of sentences were capitalized, as were proper nouns. However, common nouns were also often capitalized for no reason apparent to the modern eye." In 1756, Daniel Fenning published what became a popular spelling book in which he stated that "substantives should be wrote with a Capital Letter." According to Noel Osselton, by 1795, however, this practice was on the decline, so much so that Lindley Murray could refer to it as a thing of the past in his grammar.

Cielle said...

Byron was big on capitalizing on a whim, too. It seems like language was so much more flexible then. You want to capitalize something for stress, go ahead. You want to invent your own spelling for a word, it doesn't matter as long as a reader can figure out what you mean. There were certainly rules and conventions, but there was a healthy amount of stretching going on, too. Less law, more art.

It's also worth noting that in German, every noun is capitalized, regardless of its position in the sentence.

Mary May I said...

Thank you, for your posting it's information that I did not know.

Anonymous said...

Punctuation and grammar are as confusing as capitalization; a good bit of the perpetual Second Amendment argument is based on whether the "well-ordered militia" phrase is limiting or merely explanatory.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Didn't the abrupt decline of capitalizing nouns at the end(ish) of the 18th century coincide with new Italianate typeface imported by Alexander Pope, and also to a desire on the part of printers to save money by using less ink?

Jean-Louis said...

Oh, no, please don't? Your header title is certainly is certainly catchy. I enjoyed your posts very much. I happened to look at my wife's blog and notice yours. Thank you from a grammar lover! I will be back. Jean-Louis.

LC said...

Several of my bosses drove me crazy with what I dubbed "political capitalization." They capitalized every noun they thought important and every noun that they imagined someone else higher up might think was important. Since I had to edit their prose, diplomatic education was part of my job. I attempted to limit gnashing of teeth to the privacy of my office.