How programmers helped make the case for camels

The Monitor's language columnist casts a wary eye on the practice of capitalizing letters in the middle of a word.

Typography doesn't have a lot of laugh-out-loud moments. But some audible chuckles in the newsroom followed my discovery the other day of a new term for those irksome capital letters in the middle of words: CamelCase.

The joke is that the capital letter in the middle (also known as a medial capital) suggests the hump of a camel. Presumably when there are two such caps, as in TriBeCa, "the triangle below Canal Street" in New York, that's considered two-humped CamelCase.

The name is new to me but the phenomenon is not. In my work as a copy editor, I find it pops up frequently – and is frequently wrong. Internal caps are often correct in personal names: McDonald, FitzGerald, DuPont, etc. And they're common in trade names, and have been for some time: e.g., CinemaScope and AstroTurf, both mid-20th-century coinages (it's not just an Internet thing). I'm not thrilled with having to keep track of all this up-and-down stuff, but I accept it as my professional responsibility.

Where I draw the line is at medial caps in terms such as antiSemitic or unAmerican – which even the auto-correct gnomes inside my computer know are wrong, and can't believe I'm writing intentionally. Both of these examples follow the pattern of prefix plus proper adjective. Both prefixes are generally closed up; that is, they take no hyphen in a compound form, as in "antigovernment protesters" or "unkind remarks."

But what "everybody knows" (i.e., the conventional wisdom when I was in seventh grade) is that the "properness" of the adjectives (Semitic and American) requires them to remain capped, and that capitalization trumps the principle of closing up "anti" and "un" words.

Ah, but for legions used to trade names, the internal caps just don't seem as obviously, unmistakably, fingernails-on-the-chalkboard wrong as they do to me. (Note to self: Off deadline, research 21st-century equivalents of fingernails-on-the-chalkboard. What makes hair stand on end in the age of the whiteboard?)

CamelCase became popular among computer programmers as a space-saving way to string words together where the system demanded single terms: EndOfFile, for instance. This convention, which applied only to computer code, not "real" language, nonetheless caught on in software names like VisiCalc.

One of the forces of language is a kind of relentless compression. Today and tomorrow were once written to-day and to-morrow, as readers of Victorian novels know.

But medial caps tend to look crunched together. DaimlerChrysler, for instance, was the corporate name that resulted from a notably unsuccessful merger of two automakers. Written like that, the name makes me think of a fender-bender in a parking garage. (Can't you just hear the "scraaaaape" of metal against metal?) The other day, I happened to notice the logo of one long-established Boston law firm – the two partners' names smooshed together as one. It made me think of a married couple so bonded that when they go to parties they don't talk to anyone else.

If it were up to me to decide, I'd suggest that organizations tempted to use a crunched-together form of their name make a clear distinction between the name as it appears in a logo, as "art," so to speak, and the name as it appears in ordinary text, where it is a kindness to readers to have it follow conventional rules about capitalization and breaks between words.

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