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.)