Title Case for Bird Names.

Martha Harbison has a painfully funny piece in Audubon about the history and significance of that magazine’s decision to mandate title case for bird names (e.g., “Bald Eagle” rather than “bald eagle”). Here’s a sample:

A group of magazine editors, scientists, and communications professionals, convened by Audubon’s VP of Content, Mark Jannot, was asked to hash out, once and for all, whether Audubon would use title case (that is, capitalizing the first letter of each word) for common bird names. You can read Jannot’s account of ruffled feathers and rooster-like posturing here. (Spoiler: Audubon is switching to title case across all of its channels, including stories published in Audubon magazine.) The entire dustup was an eye-opener for me, a lifelong birder but a relatively recent hire at Audubon. Before that meeting, I thought magazine copy editors were the most rule-crazy, uptight cranks going when it came to orthography. Little did I know that ornithologists share that trait. Listening to each camp snipe at the other, over rules that nobody else in the world cares about, made me question my allegiance to either side.

As someone with more than a decade’s experience working in magazine editing, grokking the impulses of copy editors is easy: Any given rule is either in the style manual (one of a half-dozen stylebooks—but, in any given copy editor’s case, only a particular one of the those) or it’s not (and therefore it’s not a rule). To understand the ornithologist’s fervor for majuscules required some research, so I dug up a copy of the very first Check-List of North American Birds, published by the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1886. I read the entire Code of Nomenclature [...]

I personally agree with Anselm Atkins, “a longtime birder, ex-Trappist monk, and former academic,” who complained about title case, saying: “let us surrender to the dictionary. Until we do, we ornithologists, with our Important Capitals, continue to look Curiously Provincial.” But I’m not a birder, so I just watch with bemusement from the sidelines. (Via MetaFilter, where birders are defending their Important Capitals.)

Comments

  1. David Marjanović says:

    Apparently there’s a third ornithological convention: capitalizing the first letter in a name – no matter how many words the name contains!

  2. I’m not sure it’s such a silly debate. I think the problem is that the names of many bird species are compounded from a descriptive adjective and a bird noun.”Bald eagle” isn’t a good example–a better one would be “green heron.” Capitalization seems archaic and strange; on the other hand, it serves to distinguish descriptive epithets from official nomenclature.

  3. ”Bald eagle” isn’t a good example–a better one would be “green heron.”

    Whether it’s a good example depends on which position you’re supporting. I think it’s a great example because it looks so stupid with capitals.

  4. No more stupid than Oxford commas.

  5. To the bird-minded (bird-brained ?), capitals must appear as due compensation.

  6. I recall reading that capital letters are confined to relatively few of the world’s alphabets, and of course the concept doesn’t even figure in the Chinese, Japanese and Korean writing systems.

    In my work I deal extensively with English texts that have been written by native speakers of Hebrew, which does not have upper- and lower-case letters. They’ve had it drummed into their heads that sentences begin with a capital, and that’s an easy rule to remember, so it’s not an issue. (As well, five Hebrew letters take a different form at the end of a word, so the conceptual leap isn’t huge.)

    Proper nouns are trickier: If “Ministry of Public Works” is correct, why is “public works ministry” also correct but “Public Works Ministry” not? If “Public Works Minister Fred Smith” is correct, why is “Fred Smith, minister of public works”, also correct, but “Fred Smith, Public Works Minister” not? These examples follow journalistic convention (AP, etc.), though organizations are free to choose their own style — as long as they’re consistent.

    Adding to the confusion, people are often exposed to several Latin-alphabet languages. The abbreviation for street is capitalized in English (St.), but in German, which capitalizes all nouns, the abbreviation for Strasse is not (str.). Then there’s French rue, which seems to be lower-cased if it appears in running text, but upper-cased if on a street sign. And some letters have the same appearance whether upper or lower: C, O, P, S, U, V, W, X, Z, so in handwriting especially the difference is not necessarily obvious.

    For much of the world’s population, appropriate use of capital letters must be a hellish thing to master. I’m sure many must have wondered about the term capital punishment.

  7. I’m not a birder myself, and I have no opinion one way or the other on whether bird names should be capitalized in birder literature, but, with all due respect, I don’t see why scorn and ridicule should be heaped on birders who advocate an orthographic convention, however unaesthetic, that seems to have some practical utility in their field. And while there are naturally birders who carry things to extremes, birding strikes me as a benign and educational avocation.

  8. I’m not sure what gave you the impression I (or anyone) was heaping scorn and ridicule on birders; I think birders are great, as do Martha Harbison and Anselm Atkins, who are both birders themselves. I think All Capitals look silly (as do many birders), and I’m using my freedom of speech to say so. I don’t see what’s wrong with that, and I doubt I’m hurting any birders’ feelings.

  9. J. W. Brewer says:

    I’m wondering whether there have been similar stylebook controversies amongst ichthyologists or herpetologists or lepidopterists etc. If so, what outcome; if not, why not? Is there anything distinctive about naming conventions for birds that would make treating those names differently in English than we treat names for other sorts of critters objectively sensible?

  10. My first thought is that there is value to distinguishing between a grey heron (an unidentified heron of some sort that is grey in colour) and a Grey heron (a member of one specific species, Ardea cinerea).

  11. Rodger C says:

    This convention could certainly be useful if you spot a pair of Great Tits.

  12. The American Kennel Club
    uses title case for dog breeds.

  13. relatively few of the world’s alphabets

    Specifically: Latin, Greek, Coptic, Glagolitic, Cyrillic, Armenian, Warang Citi (aka Varang Kshiti), the Deseret script once used by some Mormons to write English, and archaic/religious Georgian. The classical Cherokee unicameral alphabet is in the process of being replaced by a bicameral one in which the classical letters serve as upper case.

  14. This convention could certainly be useful if you spot a pair of Great Tits

    Or a Bulbul, though the Hatterite who uses that nom de web prefers it uncapitalized. Note that the link leads to images not only of the bird but to representations of that part of the male anatomy for which this word is a slang term in Hebrew.

  15. I wasn’t particularly aware of the requirement for capital letters when I started my (still incomplete) site on bird names, and so I didn’t capitalise them (except for the first letter, of course). Rather than go through over a thousand bird names and change every one, I adopted a cheap and nasty fix using CSS (yes, there is an HTML property that capitalises every first letter in a chosen section of text).

    Capitalisation is just one of the weird things with birders. As the article points out, another is hyphenation, on which the British and Americans can’t agree. It is dismaying to read a new edition of a checklist trying to justify its approach to hyphenation, and reviews of the checklist accusing them of making bad choices. You would think that they had better things to do.

    Yet another is the ugly running together of words, e.g. ‘Button Quail’ becomes ‘Buttonquail’, ‘Laughing Thrush’ becomes ‘Laughingthrush’, etc.

    I think these conventions were proposed an spread by well-meaning ornithologists concerned that the orthography didn’t incorrectly imply that, for instance, a Button Quail is a kind of quail (it isn’t — it belongs to a different family).

    The problem is that these conventions try to make the vernacular names into pseudo-scientific names. People just don’t seem to feel comfortable with any kind of diversity. There is even a committee that spends its time trying to come up with a unified list of standardised English bird names for the whole world (see World Bird Names. This committee has worried over individual names for quite a few years. Its choices are sometimes bizarre and have to reverted in the face of opposition (see their updates of English names for some of the trivialities they deal with).

  16. Actually, ‘bulbul’ originally meant ‘nightinggale’ in the Turkic languages, which I think is where it came from. I’m not sure how it got applied to the bulbuls in English, but according to the sort of people who assert that ‘decimate’ can only mean ‘kill every tenth man’ on etymological grounds, it should be reverted!

  17. The OED1 says s.v. bulbul that Pycnonotus has been called “the nightingale of the East”, presumably because of its song.

    On the other hand, Wikipedia says: “Bulbuls are highly vocal, with the calls of most species being described as nasal or gravelly. One author described the song of the Brown-eared Bulbul as ‘the most unattractive noises made by any bird’.”

  18. The problem is that these conventions try to make the vernacular names into pseudo-scientific names. People just don’t seem to feel comfortable with any kind of diversity.

    By gad, sir, those are two succinct and eloquent sentences that sum up the situation brilliantly.

  19. Actually, ‘bulbul’ originally meant ‘nightinggale’ in the Turkic languages, which I think is where it came from.

    Wikipedia says: “Bulbuls are highly vocal, with the calls of most species being described as nasal or gravelly. One author described the song of the Brown-eared Bulbul as ‘the most unattractive noises made by any bird’.”

    Hebrew Wiki says the Hebrew term בולבול bulbul comes from Arabic and Farsi, where it means nightingale “and indeed the bulbul is known for its beautiful song.”

    Turkish Wiki has bülbül for common nightingale, and ‘bayağı Arap bülbülü’ ‘common Arab warbler’ (GT) for ‘white-spectacled-bulbul.’

    The Israeli Birding Portal may be of interest to some.

  20. Birders should use Linnaean nomenclature. That’s all there is to it. End of discussion.

  21. That would seem to be the obvious solution.

  22. I’m not exactly serious.

  23. Rodger C says:

    But that would require people to learn Anglo-Latin again.

  24. “Listening to each camp snipe at the other”

    Shouldn’t that be ‘Snipe’?

  25. Shouldn’t that be ‘Snipe’?

    Here’s a Snipe that prefers spelling petrel with an O.

  26. The main problem with the Linnaean nomenclature is that the Latin species names keep changing. The names used in the late 19th century are often quite different from the names used to day, mainly due to advances in understanding and taxonomy. You can find out why if you venture into the world of ornithology, but probably the most common reason nowadays for a change in the Latin name of a species is reassignment to a different genus. And of course there are competing authorities, so not all of them use the same Latin name. Sometimes the English common name is more stable than the scientific name!

  27. Bathrobe is right: the gannet, for example, is generally no longer Sula bassana, which I always thought was rather a beautiful name, but Morus bassanus.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    The abbreviation for street is capitalized in English (St.), but in German, which capitalizes all nouns, the abbreviation for Strasse is not (str.).

    …That’s simply because it’s never a word of its own: Hauptstr., Ramsauerstr., Invalidenstr.… But of course your point holds: even apart from German noun capitalization, the rules differ a lot between languages. English capitalizes not just nouns serving as proper names, but also adjectives derived from proper names (American) and adjectives that are parts of proper names (the Black Sea); compare German amerikanisch and das Schwarze Meer, French américain (capitalized only when referring to people: un Américain) and la mer Noire, Russian американск- and Чёрное море (first letter of proper name capitalized, happens to be on adjective). Independently, you find academic titles in uppercase in French and unsurprisingly German, but lowercase in Dutch, Danish and apparently all Slavic languages…

    I think these conventions were proposed an spread by well-meaning ornithologists concerned that the orthography didn’t incorrectly imply that, for instance, a Button Quail is a kind of quail (it isn’t — it belongs to a different family).

    See also: crested-swifts.

    The main problem with the Linnaean nomenclature is that the Latin species names keep changing.

    We have a winner. Science Marches On, and so does nomenclature with a delay of highly variable duration… in hindsight, it never was a good idea to include information about its relationships in the name of a species, but Linnaeus thought everything was just plain obvious and therefore wouldn’t need to change.

  29. [ææææææææ]! No fair linking to TV Tropes without a health warning! No fair!

  30. J. W. Brewer says:

    At least partially contra David M., the street where my host family lived 32 summers ago when I was an exchange student in West Germany appears as “Johann-Strauß-Straße” in German-language internet sites. I assume the hyphenation has something to do with it? (The whole neighborhood had streets named for composers, presumably a “safe” choice in a place where the sort of military/political historical figures streets get named for in other countries were more likely to be controversial.)

  31. Stefan Holm says:

    Carl von Linné (from Småland, where most industrious Swedes come from) was a follower of the old truth: you can observe a lot by just looking. He couldn’t do much more but look and compare. So we owe the very concept of taxonomy to him but his actual taxonomy is today of limited value.

  32. from Småland, where most industrious Swedes come from

    As well as the prettiest girls! Which thread is that song in? I lose track of all the balls being juggled.

  33. David Marjanović says:

    [ææææææææ]!

    *slinks under chair* I did use Three Capital Letters… :-]

    Johann-Strauß-Straße

    Oh. Yes. That’s Johann-Strauß-Str. with uppercase Str., never lowercase.

    a place where the sort of military/political historical figures streets get named for in other countries were more likely to be controversial

    I currently live in an area of Berlin where the streets are named for the sites of Prussian victories in 1870. Surprised me when I moved there.

    He couldn’t do much more but look and compare.

    He could always philosophize – and he did. A lot. He ascribed almost numerological significance to having exactly five ranks in his system of classification, and the binomen with genus and species, the generic and the specific, the thing and its aspect, is straight out of Aristotelian philosophy.

    Well, in theory, theory and practice are the same; in practice, they aren’t.

  34. American newspapers once wrote “Wall-st.”, “6th-ave.”, with hyphen and lowercase abbrev., but that has become obsolete now.

  35. This style was universal in Victorian and early 20th century British English; ‘Oxford Street’ was always ‘Oxford-street’ or ‘Oxford-str.’.
    How or why and when did this change of style occur and take over so completely; to write ‘Oxford-street’ now would be considered bizarre.
    Was it an editor at The Times who insisted on a new style which then spread rapidly?
    Or did it devolve from military custom. Certainly pre-WWI ‘Oxford-street’ was the accepted style but post-WWII it was definitely ‘Oxford Street’.

  36. How does the timing for the disappearance of that hyphen (and capitalization of “street”) compare with the one for the disappearance of the comma between the house number and the street name?

  37. Mencken always used “Pratt street”; no hyphen, but lowercase street. I don’t know if that was everybody’s style, Baltimore Sun style, or just HLM’s style.

  38. Breffni says:

    Did the Oxford-street convention extend to roads, lanes, boulevards, crescents, etc.? Like Oxford-road? I ask because there’s an oddity about ‘street’ vs all the others: in place names, ‘street’ is never stressed, almost as though it’s a suffix, whereas the others always are (ignoring contrastive stress): CORK street, but CORK ROAD, CORK AVenue, CORK CREScent, etc. To my sense of orthography, that would fit with hyphenating streets but not the others.

    It’s good to have finally found an opportunity to unburden myself of that useless observation.

  39. unburden myself of that useless observation

    A little before the time Hat was starving at minimum-wage jobs in NYC, I was delivering parcels, mostly in Mississauga, Ontario, for the late Simpsons department store (and making enough money that even as a student for a short time I owned both a Pontiac GTO and an Alfa Romeo — nothing like a great-paying dead-end job when you’re in college).

    During that parcel-delivery period, I learned the number of every house or apartment building that was on a street (Straße) corner in that community of 250,000, a data set that let me select the most efficient route based on that day’s load of parcels.

    I used to wonder how else I might use all that information. I don’t wonder anymore. I never used it again. And in case anybody’s wondering, I have been unburdened of it for several decades.

  40. Breffni,

    I have made that same useless observation about “street” and stress. In fact, I’m sure that I mentioned it on a Hat thread a few years ago, but the conversation fizzled out. I was not thinking of explanations involving hyphenation or outdated orthography, but just pointing out an observed pattern.

    I thought of that again during the current thread, and was disappointed when John Cowan indicated that even avenues used to be hyphenated in US newspapers.

  41. Trust the Germans to have a Straßenmuseum. Stu, anything in there that can add to this discussion?

  42. Empty, the stress part was all I had too. I thought the hyphenation thing might give it more legs, but I missed JC’s observation about avenue. Oh well. Let me know if you ever figure out the deeper significance.

  43. Is Johann-Strauß-Str hyphenated because otherwise you’d have three s’s in a row, and the German public would become bitterly divided between those who wrote Johann-Straußstr, those who wrote Johann-Straussstr., and those who wrote Johann-Strausßtr.?

  44. ‘If “Public Works Minister Fred Smith” is correct’ – it’s not, at least in my idiostylebook – only cap up when it’s the actual title, so “Fred Smith, the Minister for Public Works”, but “public works minister Fred Smith”. Not that I would write “public works minister Fred Smith” anyway – while it’s not actally WRONG, I always think that turning someone’s job title into a pseudo-adjective is ugly and clumsy, and it reads better as “the public works minister, Fred Smith”

  45. Your usage is the opposite of mine: I would write “Public Works Minister Fred Smith” (if that’s the actual title) but “Fred Smith, the public works minister.” Similarly, “President Obama” but “Obama, the president of the US.”

  46. David Marjanović says:

    Is Johann-Strauß-Str hyphenated because otherwise you’d have three s’s in a row, and the German public would become bitterly divided between those who wrote Johann-Straußstr, those who wrote Johann-Straussstr., and those who wrote Johann-Strausßtr.?

    Nice try! :-þ

    It’s a {Johann-Strauß}-Straße, not a Johann-{Strauß-Straße}, so omitting just the second but not the first hyphen would be misleading. Omitting both would trigger stress on Johann instead of on {Johann Strauß}, within which the stress goes on the surname; in other words, omitting both hyphens (or indeed just the first one) would put the primary stress two syllables too early.

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