I know a writer who likes to capitalize certain words or phrases, as if they were proper nouns. It’s really none of my business, but I can’t help noticing. He’ll write, “My aunt has Rheumatoid Arthritis and they only gave her Aspirin.”
It’s a minor habit, usually involving technical terms, and I’m pretty sure he’s not doing it just to irritate me. I spent many years editing and proofreading the writing of others, and this is just the kind of thing that will get my attention.
It looks weird to me, but I get it. Some things, in our minds, have capital letters because they’re important.
I have my own issues. For example, I can’t write a title out without capitalizing every word, even though I know someone will just change it. (Beacon Editor: He’s right.)
And everything needs a title – if I wrote memos, my memos would have titles, and every word would be capitalized. It never looks right without it. So yes, I do understand that we’re all weirdos about stuff.
And now I want to capitalize everything having to do with the pandemic, which I have to resist typing as The Pandemic. Or The Virus.
I don’t have to tell anyone that this is important, and could use a big, grown-up letter at the beginning. I just don’t know which letter, because I don’t know what to call it.
This has become a problem, as I’ve been writing about this for the past 18 months. I’ve run out of words, and I never had a lot in the first place.
My theory is that it’s because we don’t have a one-syllable word to describe it, or even an acronym like SARS or AIDS. I don’t know how people referred to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, but I imagine they could say “the flu” and everyone would understand the time period being referenced.
“COVID” is not bad as shorthand, and it’s probably where we’ll land, although Lord knows what we’ll settle on as far as capitalization. It’s technically an acronym, standing in for COronaVIrus Disease-2019 (when it was first recognized), although I have a feeling it’ll eventually become commonly spelled as we now do “radar” (Radio Detection and Ranging) or “laser” (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, although now I’m just showing off).
I don’t know why this is on my mind, except that I’m seeing everything through a pandemic lens now and I want that shorthand. I’m not that fussy as long as we all agree on what we mean, but we’re talking about three separate, if interconnected (whew), things: A virus, a disease, and a pandemic. We might need new words after all.
And I’d like to acknowledge that you’re still reading and I’m still writing a newspaper column about proper capitalization, because this is the point we’ve apparently reached. In this thing. Whatever we end up calling it.
There’s a serious point here, though, or at least that’s what I’m telling myself. The words we settle on to describe things often contain an outsized responsibility for how these things are viewed.
I recently read an article about the mosquito problem in Southern California. This is a new situation for Californians, apparently, as it would be for us, and it’s due to climate change.
That’s the way it was reported, and it’s consistent with other reporting, particularly on the wildfires here in the western U.S.
We’ve been talking about the impact of human behavior on our climate in a public way for over 60 years; I learned about air pollution and the greenhouse effect when I was in elementary school.
But in a time when everything is heavily politicized and journalists often rely on quotation marks to do the heavy lifting, it’s now apparently become obvious that the climate is changing and it’s not a good thing.
The age of equivocation around this is over, I suspect, although I’ve never lost money betting against our own dumbness.
I think the words we use around this are important, then, and also telling. Think back on the early days, now nearly two years ago, and the language we used. A person who referred to working from home as “quarantine” had a shaky understanding of the word.
Using “lockdown” versus “shutdown” also carried a perspective, if subtle (shutting down felt voluntary; “lockdown” likewise felt imposed on us, if necessary).
“Sheltering” was a tempting term, sort of sentimental, but it just feels temporary. We take shelter from a storm. Eventually we go back outside.
And we haven’t yet. Even as arguments erupted over the use of “normalcy” instead of the perfectly acceptable “normality,” we all know we haven’t reached it. We don’t scrub our packages anymore, or sing a song under our breath as we wash our hands a million times, but this isn’t normal, whatever it’s called.
People referred to the economic crisis of the 1930s as “depression” while it was happening (Herbert Hoover often used it himself), but the capitalized term “Great Depression,” first used in 1934, didn’t become normalized until after World War II.
Which was just called “the war,” as all wars are. As much as I believe, to paraphrase George Orwell, that it usually takes constant, unrelenting effort to see what’s right in front of us, I also think that it just takes time for us to figure out what to call it.
The capitalization will work itself out.