A capitonym is a word that changes its nuance, meaning, and sometimes pronunciation when it’s capitalized; capitalization being applied due to one form being a proper noun, such as Bill/bill, or an eponym, such as Augustus/august. Some capitonyms are homonyms (Rose/rose), and others can be heteronyms (Polish/polish, Tangier/tangier) where pronunciation changes accordingly. The word capitonym is a portmanteau of the word capital with the suffix -onym.
Besides the list of first names above, last names that are capitonyms often fall in the realms of labor, colors, and animals, like baker, cook, farmer, brown, white, green, wolf, fox, and parrot. When first meeting people with such surnames, best to spare them your witticism.
Capitonyms may or may not be etymologically related in their capitalized and un-capitalized forms. The month of May and the verb may don’t share an etymology, whereas Catholic and catholic both derive from a Greek adjective meaning “universal.”
Capital letters can be used to differentiate a set of objects or people and an example of that set, like a moon and the Moon, a dad and Dad, or a bible and the Bible.
Religious contexts have very specific rules for capital spelling. The general word god is capitalized to God when referring to the deity of monotheistic religions. When referencing said deities, common pronouns like me, mine, you, and yours are usually capitalized as well. Within the liturgy, there is Mass as opposed to physical mass, and church denoting a building compared to Church when referring to members of a religious group. In the same lofty vein, words carrying a meaning of transcendence, religious or secular, are often capitalized, such as Truth, Beauty, and Justice.
Because political parties are often named after political philosophies, capital letters differentiate one who supports a philosophy, such as a conservative believing in a philosophy of conservatism, and one who claims herself a Conservative in support of the Conservative Party.
Finally, there’s one pesky little glitch in the English scheme to differentiate capitonyms: the beginning of a sentence. Consider the mental sort and the necessity of context and punctuation when reading these examples:
- Bill the patient, please.
- Turkey requires a visa.
- Rusty waters plants.
- Crystal is clearly delicate.
- Nice winters are mild compared to Paris.
- Cook wages war in court.
- Iris blossoms on the piano.
- Pat the dog.
- Will Will?
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