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Capitalization of words derived from proper names
I work in a field where words are constantly being invented, many often derived from proper names. I would like ideas for a rational convention about when it is appropriate to stop capitalizing these words.
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As a mathematical researcher, I encounter newly minted words all the time. Many of these words are derived from the name of the person who first encountered the concept described by the word. There seems to be no rational convention about which of these words is capitalized. Most mathematical papers use “abelian” rather than “Abelian” but “Galois extension” rather than “galois extension”. Abel and Galois were contemporaries, both died in their twenties, and both have huge legacies in mathematics.

Is it true that words like “draconian” are uncapitalized because the word is so established and widespread that it may be detached from the man Draco from whom it is derived? Who is the oracle that gets to decide when this happens? Even if that’s the case, that isn’t the rationale for capitalization in mathematics — “Euclidean” is usually capitalized and no mathematician is more widespread or long-established than Euclid. Would it be wrong of me to defy some conventions and just capitalize every mathematical word that I recognize as derived from a proper name? Surely some would take exception to this Draconian measure. If so, is there a more nuanced and reasonable approach?

Update: I believe that German has a strict convention: nouns derived from proper names are capitalized and adjectives derived from proper names are not. Should such conventions be respected when these words are adopted into other languages?

New River, AZ, USA
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We have a similar situation in the physical sciences, but have SI as our “oracle” to guide usage. One example: the unit for power is the “watt” (after James Watt). When the unit is written out it starts with a lowercase “w” but is abbreviated as an uppercase “W” (as in 100 W bulb).

You are correct about the German language having it’s own rules, and those rules trump SI in German scientific writing.

I can’t speak for the mathematical community, but I have noticed the inconsistencies you asked about. Maybe it’s time for mathematicians to adopt their own version of SI to address the issue. Seems like that would be a herculean task, given all the different branches of mathematics. Not only do mathematicians often invent new words, they invent new symbols (or re-purpose old symbols) and forms of notation. Things aren’t quite that “messy” in the physical sciences.

Now if you’re talking about “normal” English, I think it’s pretty much usage that determines whether words like “herculean” are capitalized. And the “oracles” in that case are the people who write the dictionaries and style guides. And they make those decisions based on what they see in print over a wide range of publications. I doubt the “nuanced and reasonable approach” you’re seeking exists in practice.

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At first, I asked myself why Sports Illustrated would have an opinion on capitalization or the physical sciences, and I came up with a few reasons for both. But then I asked myself what else SI might stand for. Needless to say, a two-letter abbreviation such as SI could stand for a lot of different things.

I settled on the unsettling conclusion that SI stood for International System of Units. SI

Even once you make peace with the idea that the letter order in the abbreviation comes from the French, and stop asking why English doesn’t choose neatly between two alternatives — either muster the courage to form its own abbreviation based on the English name for the system or cravenly use both the French abbreviation and the French name — you are left with the unsettling question of why the salient word, units / unités, is left out of the abbreviation entirely in either language.

Nature is full of marvels.

New River, AZ, USA
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SI is indeed Système International , and it’s pretty much the “style guide” for scientists … actually less a “guide” and more a “directive.”

Not like there are no special cases or disagreement from certain scientific factions, but SI is at least an internally consistent system. Couldn’t be any other way, given its component quantities have to relate to each other in mathematical equations.

Less so are the requirements for a highly-specialized sub-field of mathematics, which can be quite “self contained” and not have to play well with other sub-fields. So my comment to bear’s post about mathematicians developing their own version of SI was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It could be done, and perhaps should have been assigned by Hera to Hercules as his 13th Labor.

Glenn: Obviously, whatever was “broke” is now fixed. The “Add Reply” link is back. Thanks.


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Glenn, afraid it’s a matter of opinion– it’s debatable whether the French are part of nature.
(Americans and the rest probably followed suit, keeping in mind it was 1875)


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