LOWERCASE THAT I!

I don’t tend to join crusades, but I’m hereby enlisting in Joseph Turow‘s. According to John Schwartz’s article “Who Owns the Internet? You and i Do” in this week’s NY Times Week in Review, Turow is campaigning to have the word “internet” spelled with a small i.

Capitalization irked him because, he said, it seemed to imply that reaching into the vast, interconnected ether was a brand-name experience.
“The capitalization of things seems to place an inordinate, almost private emphasis on something,” he said, turning it into a Kleenex or a Frigidaire. “The Internet, at least philosophically, should not be owned by anyone,” he said, calling it “part of the neural universe of life.”
But, he said, dropping the big I would sent a deeper message to the world: The revolution is over, and the Net won. It’s part of everyone’s life, and as common as air and water (neither of which starts with a capital).

I’ve always thought of the word as lowercase, and it irritates me every time I see that capital I. Mind you, there are (as always) obstacles to change:

Dictionaries do not generally see themselves as making the rules, said Jesse Sheidlower, who runs the American offices of the Oxford English Dictionary.
“What dictionaries do is reflect what’s out there,” he said. He and his fellow dictionary editors would think seriously about such changes after newspapers make them, he added.
That could take a while. Allan M. Siegal, a co-author of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and an assistant managing editor at the newspaper, said that “there is some virtue in the theory” that Internet is becoming a generic term, “and it would not be surprising to see the lowercase usage eclipse the uppercase within a few years.”
He said, however, that the newspaper was unlikely to make any change that was not supported by authoritative dictionaries.

And, by the way, “the Internet’s capital I is virtually engraved in stone, since Microsoft Word automatically capitalizes the lowercase “i” unless a user overrides its settings.”
So fight the power and force the newspapers, the dictionaries, and Bill Gates to recognize the new, non-brand-name reality—write “internet”!

Comments

  1. I may be mistaken, but I believe that “itnernet” simply means “interconnected network[s].” There are many internets out there. There is only one Internet. The capital I does have a meaning, or at least it did have.

  2. Songdog is thinking of the word “intranet”.

    But anyway… capitalising “internet” is a completely foreign concept to me. I was marked off in a paper for writing “the internet”, and I was quite surprised.

  3. I’m not thinking of “intranet,” actually. Although there are certainly many intranets, there is no Intranet. And although most people may not be aware of it, there is more than one internet, the fact that most of us only talk about the Internet notwithstanding.

  4. I’m with Songdog on this one. In fact, I’m a bit disappointed in Turow and Languagehat for coming down on the side of “I didn’t really research this, but this is what I think…”

    I’d never gotten the impression of Turow as having such tendencies, and I definitely expected more of Languagehat.

  5. Well, I’m not really sure what research is needed here. The word is spelled both ways, and there are arguments to be made on both sides, so it’s just a question of which side you come down on. Turow wanted to give some support to “internet”; I agreed, so I blogged him. Are there objective criteria you feel are being ignored?

  6. Personally, I’m not disappointed in anyone here. We all know different stuff, and since this was one of the [very] rare occasions when I’ve been able to contribute to a usage discussion I thought I should chime in.

    The fact is that the capitalization originally meant something, but at some point it may outlive its usefulness. Most people out there have only ever heard of one internet . The capitalization is irrelevant to them and this may determine their usage. If so, those who care to make the distinction will either have to define their terms or come up with different ones. I’m sure this happens all the time.

  7. I’m abstaining on the case case, but I’d like to pose a related question: should the definite article be dropped, as already happens in Spanish?

  8. Sorry for being late to this discussion.
    In my education, proper nouns are always capitalized. And while there may be more than one internet, there is only one Internet that people are referring to when they say “the Internet.”
    Capitalizing the Internet is no different from capitalizing the United States. Will you start pushing for united states of america on the same populist grounds?

  9. So you would write “the World”?

  10. No, but I do write “the Earth, the Sun, the Moon, Hell, Heaven”, etc. as well as “the Internet”, though I know there are plenty of people who lowercase them all. I do too if the proper-noun sense isn’t dominant: “Go to Hell”, but “What the hell?” As Bill Safire said about Hell: “It’s a place, like Scarsdale.” (Though I would have chosen Mamaroneck instead: the wife of a colleague, many years ago, called it “Boreboreaneck”.)

  11. As Bill Safire said about Hell: “It’s a place, like Scarsdale.”

    That was not Bill Safire, it was Bill Buckley. You’re probably remembering Safire quoting him. For reference, here’s the language columnist’s full decision (silly as it is) on this vital issue:

    William F. Buckley always puts the first letter in uppercase: “It’s a place, like Scarsdale.” The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage almost completely disagrees: “As the nether‐place name, it is lowercase, but Hades is uppercase. As profanity and slang, hell is also lowercase.” For the hell of it, the manual adds: “It is also best avoided as common and tiresome.”

    When I write a stylebook, sometime after I learn to spell, here’s how I’ll handle that nether‐nether land: in all secondary usages, lowercase: hell’s bells, what the hell, the hell with it, hell‐raising, hellbent for election, come hell or high water. But in all cases where the sense of place is clear and primary, I’ll capitalize it — like Scarsdale — as deserving of a place name: You’ve made my life Hell. Hell hath no fury like a woman called a “girl.” (‘Go to hell,” and “To hell with you,” though they originally referred to Hell as a place, have lost that specific meaning. “Damn it to Hell,” though common and tiresome to some, is explicit enough with its reference to damnation to cause Hell to be treated as a place.)

  12. But wait! On further investigation, it appears that Buckley himself was quoting someone; from his Nearer, My God:

    I once quoted the author Ralph de Toledano, whose editor lowercased the word “Hell” in a novel, which the author recapitalized on reviewing the editor’s draft. “Why do you want to capitalize hell?” the editor asked. “Because,” Toledano replied, “it’s a place. You know, like Scarsdale.”

  13. (Not that I trust Buckley’s attribution any more than I trust Safire’s.)

  14. John Cowan says

    Wait, what?

    Safire attributes the expression to Buckley, and that’s correct, because you quoted Buckley as using the phrase. So if you trust your own attribution to Buckley, you ipso facto trust Safire’s.

    Although Safire and I use the same principle, our particulars are slightly different: I would write “You’ve made my life hell” (a life is not a place) and “Go to Hell” (where you are told to go definitely is a place).

  15. You mistake me — I don’t trust Buckley’s attribution to Ralph de Toledano.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Capitalizing all Nouns does have its Advantages sometimes.

  17. Surely in this Case it would remove the Possibility of Disambiguation.

  18. January First-of-May says

    Possibly relevant: the Russian rendition of the OP question.

    (Variations exist; the version I’ve previously seen, which is slightly different, comes from Shakhidzhanyan’s extensive collection of computer-themed jokes. Apparently there are several other versions elsewhere.
    As far as I can tell, the text dates from the mid-to-late 90s; these days the non-lowercase versions are much less common.)

    Capitalizing the Internet is no different from capitalizing the United States. Will you start pushing for united states of america on the same populist grounds?

    “My… homeworld, I guess… was called “dath ilan”. Which I am not capitalizing, because by our conventions dath ilan is the name of a civilization, and doesn’t get the emphasis-marks that would signify a personal name, which matters because a civilization is not a person.”
    – Eliezer Yudkowsky, My April Fools’ Day Confession

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