A linguistic menu, including brussels sprouts, champagne, Cornish pasties and french windows

(A game of spot the odd one out)

Opening for a set-designer
Opening for a set-designer

One of the most frequently heard questions in the Lazy Bee Scripts office is “should this have a capital letter”?   The proof reader, usually Sue, has stumbled over a word which either has a spurious capital of an absence of an upper case lead.   Mostly, the answer is clear, but sometimes we have to scratch our heads.

The most common errors concern forms of address.   If you are speaking to your father, you address him as Dad with a capital because you are substituting for his name (Eric).   Similarly, Your Majesty takes capitals as it stands in for Liz.   On the other hand, “my dad” refers to an example of a generic type (the class of fathers), so takes lower case.

The real head-scratchers are things like the ones in the heading.   Can you spot the odd one out?   No, it is neither the windows nor the pasties.   The anomaly is champagne.

The examples all take their name from a geographical region.   The rule should be that if the item can only come from the particular area, then it is using the region as a proper noun.   That’s why Cornish pasties have the capital.  That style of pasty – the semi-circular enclosure, with a thick crimped crust on the curved part of the perimeter – is recognised as a regional delicacy.  (The thick rim is there so that miners with dirty hands could grip something whilst eating the more gastronomically interesting filling.)  The pasties with the ridge down the middle – like a small, edible Stegosaurus – are Devenish pasties, or oggies.

In the case of french windows and brussels sprouts, the items can be made or grown anywhere, so the name is an indicator of the style, rather than specific origin, and takes lower case.  The same applies to cheddar cheese (to Sue’s distress, as she grew up close to Cheddar), since the documentation of a standardised manufacturing system allowed the cheddar method to travel the world.  (If you are interested in this from a cheese-making viewpoint, rather than a purely linguistic one, then try, for example, The Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury.)  Sampling the case of champagne, we find that it really ought to be capitalised, because it comes exclusively from the Champagne region, but the word has been so long in English as a generic that it has been allowed to stay that way.

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