CLOSE

Why Do We Capitalize the Word "I"?

Caroline Winter (sitting in for William Safire) tackles the issue of the English capitalized "I" in her column My, Myself and I in yesterday's Times Magazine. It's an interesting read (okay, and deliciously nerdy), touching on the use of personal pronouns in various languages, and tracing the peculiar history of this particular one-letter English word. (Also, big bonus points for using the word majuscule in the opening paragraph!)

Here's a sample:

"Graphically, single letters are a problem," says Charles Bigelow, a type historian and a designer of the Lucida and Wingdings font families. "They look like they broke off from a word or got lost or had some other accident." When "I" shrunk to a single letter, Bigelow explains, "one little letter had to represent an important word, but it was too wimpy, graphically speaking, to carry the semantic burden, so the scribes made it bigger, which means taller, which means equivalent to a capital."

The growing "I" became prevalent in the 13th and 14th centuries, with a Geoffrey Chaucer manuscript of "The Canterbury Tales" among the first evidence of this grammatical shift. Initially, distinctions were made between graphic marks denoting an "I" at the beginning of a sentence versus a midphrase first-person pronoun. Yet these variations eventually fell by the wayside, leaving us with our all-purpose capital "I," a potent change apparently made for simplicity's sake. ...

One divergence stems from the Rastafarians, who intentionally developed a dialect of Jamaican Creole in order to break culturally from the English-speaking imperialists who once enslaved them. Their phrase "I and I" can be used in place of "I," "we" or Rastafarians as a group, but generally expresses the oneness of the speaker with God and all people. "I and I" is thus, in some ways, a conscious deviation — really the exact opposite of the English ego-centered capital "I."

Read the rest for a nice review of the issue, including some amusing presidential candidate statistics related to the use of "I."

(Via Daring Fireball.)

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
iStock
iStock

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

arrow
language
Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios