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Language Arts

Capitonym



A capitonym is a sequence of letters that has a different meaning and sometimes a different pronunciation (that is, it is a different word) depending on whether or not it is capitalized.  This article explains capitonyms and their use.

The word capitonym comes from the word capital and the root onym, which is used as the ending for words used in a classification system, like taxonym, acronym, and heteronym (for more on the latter, see the article “Heteronym”).

More About Capitonyms

Capitonyms can be viewed as a specialized type of homograph. Homographs are words that are spelled exactly the same (homo means “the same,” and graph means “writing”). It is important to note that capitonyms work differently in English than they would in languages that have different rules of capitalization.

Capitonyms can be categorized several ways. One way to categorize them is by separating those that have related meanings and those who are not etymologically related and whose similarity is coincidental.

An example of a set of capitonyms with related meanings is the month of August, named for the Roman leader Augustus Caesar and the adjective august, from the same root that Augustus Caesar chose his name. An example of capitonyms with unrelated meanings is Herb, a nickname for Herbert, which reportedly has a Saxon or Teutonic background, and herb, from the Latin, herba.

Another way to categorize capitonyms is by separating those that are pronounced the same (that is, those that are homphones) from those with differing pronunciations. An example of capitonyms that may be pronounced the same is herb/Herb, although herb is also pronounced without the initial /h/. August and august on the other hand, always have different pronunciation: the month is accented on the first syllable, and the adjective on the second: /AW guhst/ as compared to /aw GUHST/.

Frequently Encountered Capitonyms

Some capitonyms pop up more often than others. The ones we may run into most frequently include the following:

Capitalized Version

Lowercase Version

Bill, the name, short for William

bill, the amount to be paid

Catholic, short for the Roman Catholic Church

catholic, universal

China, the country

china, the dinnerware

Fiat, the automobile

fiat, the decree

Ionic, a classical architectural style

ionic, an adjective referring to ions

Job, the hero of a Biblical tale

job, an employment opportunity

Lent, the period in the Christian calendar

lent, past tense of the verb lend

Lima, the capital of Peru

lima, a sort of bean

March, the third month

march, a mode of walking used by the military

May, the fifth month

may, used to request permission

Mosaic, having to do with Moses

mosaic, collage with bits of stone, tile, or glass

Nice, a town in France

nice, a synonym for kind

Pole, a person from Poland

pole, a long stick

Polish, something from Poland

polish, what keeps silver shiny

Reading, a town

reading, a participle of the verb read

Scone, a town in Scotland, mentioned in Macbeth

scone, a savory or lightly sweetened cookie

Turkey, a country

turkey, a North American bird

Notice that of these, the following pairs are pronounced identically in American English:

  •  Bill/bill
  •  Catholic/catholic
  •  China/china
  •  Fiat/fiat
  •  Ionic/ionic
  •  Lent/lent
  •  March/march
  •  May/may
  •  Mosaic/mosaic
  •  Pole/pole and
  •  Turkey/turkey

Those capitonyms from the list pronounced differently in American English are:

  •  Job /JOHB/ and job /JAHB/
  •  Lima /LEE muh/ and lima /LIE muh/
  •  Nice /NEES/ and nice /NISE/
  •  Polish /POH lihsh/ and polish /PAW lihsh/
  •  Reading /REHD ihng/ and reading /REED ihng/ and
  •  Scone /SKOOHN/ and scone /SKOHN/

There are some other capitonyms that arise from nicknames, often idiosyncratic or atypical ones - for example, Cat, a capitonym of cat, rather than Cathy or Kate or Katie as a nickname for Catherine - but there are still not that many. The fact is, the number of capitonyms in English is not very large.

Related Articles
Synonyms Antonyms Heteronym