Capitalization

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Capitalization

Post by trolley » Tue Jan 21, 2020 9:45 pm

A colleague was writing something at work this morning: "...this region is a mecca for well-educated natural foods customers..."
I said that a proper noun should be capitalized even when it is being used as a regular noun. She disagrees. It seems to be a split-vote on the inter-webs. Wizards...?
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Re: Capitalization

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed Jan 22, 2020 4:15 am

In some contexts, place names, just like brand names, become genericized over time as the original connotations recede from speakers' consciousness.

So just as you might hoover your hallway rather than Hoovering it or take your tea on the train in a thermos rather than a Thermos flask, a conurbation may get copenhagenized (i.e. be made more bicycle-friendly by design) rather than Copenhagenized, or you might eat lower-case lima beans, address a miniature manila envelope and smoke a humbled havana.

Similarly, a government ministry can become generally turns into a mecca for maladministration and malfeasance. And when I'm in America, I go to the john, not the John.
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Re: Capitalization

Post by BonnieL » Wed Jan 22, 2020 4:28 am

William Safire had a similar discussion about hell & heaven in "On Language." It's stuck in my memory for years because of the William Buckley quote - he said it should be uppercase because: "It's a place, like Scarsdale."

Safire disagreed - he thought it depended on whether you meant the place - Hell - or just as an intensifier - what the hell. Same for heaven. So I would think he would say the same for Mecca the city, or mecca the descriptor.
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Re: Capitalization

Post by trolley » Wed Jan 22, 2020 11:26 pm

Thanks, folks (Folks?)
I guess it's a good thing that my co-worker doesn't read here. Good point on the genericization angle. Yes, if I pull a random tissue from a box I'm grabbing a kleenex and the John/john bit makes good sense to me (for obvious reasons)... and who am I to argue with Mr. Safire? The more I think about it and read about it, the more confused I get and the more I realize that I don't really have any hard and fast criteria that I base my determinations on. For some reason, Mecca seemed to be calling out for a capital when I read it but I wouldn't capitalize french fries. Scotch whisky, I would (even if it wasn't at the start of a sentence) but brussels sprouts...no. Caesar salad could go either way but I'd capitalize baked Alaska and Swiss cheese. If I called someone a Napolean (in the tyrant with a “little man complex” sense), I’d use a capital. If I was referring to him like that because was a tasty little vanilla slice…well, that doesn’t really matter because it’s not likely to happen.
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