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A capitonym is a word that changes its meaning (and sometimes pronunciation) when it is capitalized; the capitalization usually applies due to one form being a proper noun or eponym. It is a portmanteau of the word capital with the suffix -onym. A capitonym is a form of homograph and – when the two forms are pronounced differently – also of heteronym. In situations where both words should be capitalized (such as the beginning of a sentence), there will be nothing to distinguish between them except the context in which they are used.
Although some pairs, such as march and March, are completely unrelated, in other cases, such as august and catholic, the capitalized form is a name that is etymologically related to the uncapitalized form. For example, August derives from the name of Imperator Augustus, who named himself after the word augustus, whence English august came. Likewise, both Catholic and catholic derive from a Greek adjective meaning "universal".
Capital letters may be used to differentiate between a set of objects, and a particular example of that object. For instance in Astronomical terminology a distinction may be drawn between a moon, any natural satellite, and the Moon, to be specific the natural satellite of Earth. Likewise, Sun with a capital may be used to emphasise that the sun of Earth is under discussion.
Philosophical, religious, and political terms
A particular example of where capitonyms are prominent is in terminology relating to philosophy, religion, and politics. Capitalized words are often used to differentiate a philosophical concept from how the concept is referred to in everyday life, or to demonstrate respect for an entity or institution.
It is common practice to capitalize the pronouns referring to the Abrahamic God (He, Him, His, etc.) and many versions of the Bible, such as the NKJV, therefore do so. In this tradition, possessive pronouns are also capitalized if one is quoting God; "My" and "Mine" are capitalized, which should not be done when a human speaks. The pronouns "You", "Your", and "Yours" are also sometimes capitalized in reference to God.
Words for transcendent ideas in the Platonic sense are often capitalized, especially when used in a religious context. Examples include "Good", "Beauty", "Truth" or "the One".
The word "god" is capitalized to "God" when referring to the single deity of monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Other distinctions made include church (meaning a building) and Church (meaning an organization or group of people), and the liturgical Mass, versus the physical mass.
As political parties are often named after philosophies, a capital letter is used to differentiate between a supporter of the philosophy, and a supporter of the party, for instance Liberal, a supporter of any Liberal Party, and liberal, a supporter of the philosophy of liberalism. The Liberal Party of Australia and Liberal Party of Canada are not philosophically liberal; thus, in these countries, adherents of liberalism are sometimes said to be "small-l liberals" to differentiate. Similar examples are conservative/Conservative, democrat/Democrat, libertarian/Libertarian, republican/Republican, socialist/Socialist, and a supporter of labour/Labour.
List of capitonyms in English
The following list includes only "dictionary words". Personal names (Mark/mark), place-names (China/china), company names (Fiat/fiat), names of publications (Time/time) etc. are all excluded as too numerous to list. Adjectives distinct from placenames (e.g. Polish/polish) are allowed. Pairs in which one word is simply a secondary meaning of the other – e.g. Masonry (secret society), which is in essence a peculiar use of the word masonry (wall building) – are omitted.
|Capitalised word||Lowercase word||Notes|
|Arabic: of or relating to the Arabic language or Arabic literature||arabic: (gum) Arabic, also called gum acacia, a food ingredient|
|Ares: god of war||ares: plural of are, a metric unit of area||Different pronunciations|
|August: the eighth month of the year||august: majestic or venerable||Different pronunciations|
|Cancer: a constellation and astrological sign, or a genus of crab||cancer: a class of diseases|
|Cuban: from Cuba||cuban: relating to cubes, as in cuban prime (rare technical use)|
|Divine: relating to God||divine: to discover by intuition or insight; to locate water, minerals, etc.||In lower case, the word can take either meaning|
|Gallic: relating to France or to the ancient territory of Gaul||gallic: relating to galls (abnormal plant growths) or gallic acid|
|German: from Germany||german: closely related (mostly obsolete)|
|Hamlet: A play by William Shakespeare, or the play's protagonist||hamlet: a small town|
|Ionic: relating to Ionia or to a style of classical architecture||ionic: relating to (chemical) ions|
|Lent: the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter||lent: past tense and participle of to lend|
|March: the third month of the year||march: to walk briskly and rhythmically|
|May: the fifth month of the year||may: modal verb|
|Mercury: the messenger god of Roman mythology, or the first planet in the Solar System||mercury: a substance also known as quicksilver|
|Mosaic: pertaining to Moses||mosaic: a kind of decoration|
|Muse: One of the nine Greek goddesses involved with the arts, music, poetry, etc.||muse: A person who serves as inspiration for artistic endeavours; also, to ponder reflectively over.|
|Pole: a Polish person||pole: a long, thin cylindrical object; various other meanings|
|Polish: // from Poland||polish: // to create a shiny surface by rubbing; a compound used in that process||Different pronunciations|
|Scot: a native of Scotland||scot: a payment, charge, assessment, or tax|
|Scotch: from or relating to Scotland, or a form of whisky||scotch: to put an end to something (especially rumours)|
|Tyre: A location near Ancient Greece||tyre: a part of a car's wheel||British spelling|
|Welsh: from or relating to Wales||welsh: to renege (on an agreement)||The verb welsh (also spelled welch) is of unknown etymology but is often described as deriving from the adjective Welsh and consequently perceived as insulting to people from Wales, although there is no direct evidence of the connection, nor any popular perception that people from Wales do not comply with agreements|
Example in poetry
The following poem from Richard Lederer's The Word Circus is an example of the use of capitonyms:
In August, an august patriarch
Was reading an ad in Reading, Mass.
Long-suffering Job secured a job
To polish piles of Polish brass.
In other languages there are more, or fewer, of these pairs depending on that language's capitalization rules. For example, in German, where all nouns are capitalized, there are many pairs such as Laut (sound) ~ laut (loud) or Morgen (morning) ~ morgen (tomorrow). In contrast, in Italian, as well as Spanish, very few words (except proper names) are capitalized, so there are extremely few, if any, such pairs. An example in Spanish is Lima (city) ~ lima file (tool) or lime (fruit).
- Lederer, Richard (1998). The Word Circus. Merriam-Webster. p. 23. ISBN 0877793549. Retrieved 23 December 2015.
- Shewan, Ed (2003). Applications of Grammar: Principles of Effective Communication. Liberty Press. p. 112. ISBN 1930367287.
- Elwell, Celia (1996). Practical Legal Writing for Legal Assistants. Cengage Learning. p. 71. ISBN 0314061150.
- The Bible translator: Volumes 43-45. United Bible Societies. 1992. p. 226.
- Cabal, Ted (2007). The Apologetics Study Bible. B&H Publishing Group. pp. xix. ISBN 1586404466.
- The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing. Dundurn. 1997. p. 77. ISBN 1550022768.
- The Teaching of Christ: A Catholic Catechism for Adults. Our Sunday Visitor Publishing. 2004. p. 8. ISBN 1592760945.
- The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). 2010. 8.93. ISBN 978-0-226-10420-1.
- Charles Richardson (27 May 2010). "How the Liberal Party left Malcolm Fraser behind". Crikey. Retrieved 2010-12-30.
|Look up capitonym in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|