Capital Letters Are Magic
"The door was the way to... to...
The Door was The Way.
Capital letters were always the best way of dealing with things you didn't have a good answer to."
One of the hardest parts of making a fantasy or science fiction world can be names. Not just for people, but for metaphysical concepts, alien races or awe-inspiring devices/weapons. When writers don't want to make up a new word, they'll often take a short, evocative term and capitalize it. The practice is still so commonplace that J. R. R. Tolkien
(who was a language professor at a respected university) decided to use a trick of combining Capital Letters Are Magic with commonplace words from languages he'd made up for fun in his spare time
to create all of his fictional-but-now-well-known fantasy names. Here on this site
we get a lot of tropes this way as well, such as the The Load
and The Dragonnote
In universe, a character may comment on how they can "hear" the Capital Letters. Of course, this is easily explained as proper nouns have inflections, pauses, and emphasis that normal speech does not.
Ideally, this will give the concept a simple, descriptive name that doesn't sound too dopey. Unfortunately, this can cause hiccups
when they want to use the word in its usual sense, and often leads to eye-rolling from jaded fantasy fans.
Alongside ordinary words that take on special new meanings, neologisms are frequently capitalized as well. If fantasy characters talk about smeerps instead of Smeerps, then it may throw the reader off. (Even if these characters are Smeerp farmers who wouldn't think of the animals as "special", and who also ride horses instead of Horses.) Well-established fantasy concepts, such as dragons and vampires, don't get this treatment. It seems that lowercase words feel more orthodox and "official", and it's therefore incorrect for a fictional world to have a "new" one without the characters somehow noticing that something is different.
Brand Names Are Better
is another example of the effect. After the "magic" has gone away, you get Brand Name Takeover
. (The magical new power to copy papers is Xeroxing; years later, the everyday task of copying papers is xeroxing.)
This trope probably originates in the fact that up until sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century it was conventional in English to capitalise all
nouns, much as it still is in German. Hence capitalising random words makes them feel Old and Important.
Compare The Trope without a Title
and We Will Use WikiWords In The Future
(when two or more simple words are used in this way). Contrast Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp"
, which is putting fantastical names to common things. A popular alternative is Phantasy Spelling
, though such terms are often also capitalized. The most common way to make a name out of it is to spell it with a "the"
- The Dark Is Rising: Old Ones. The Light. The Dark.
- The Flood from Halo
- Also the Grunts, Jackals, Drones, Hunters, Engineers, Brutes, Elites, and Prophets, which all have non-English species names anywaynote
- The Forsaken and the Scourge from Warcraft
- The Eternals from Marvel Comics
- The Neverborn and the Primordials from Exalted, as well as the eponymous Exalted. Lunar and Solar castes also get a rather negative form of this treatment from the Immaculate Order, with titles such as the Deceivers, the Blasphemous, the Frenzied, etc...
- Older Than Print: The Fair Folk being from medieval European folklore.
- Gregory Maguire's Wicked makes an important distinction between animals and Animals.
- Likewise, capitalization serves to distinguish sentient hominids of Ringworld, such as Hanging People or Grass Giants, from non-sentient ones such as vampires. Subverted in that, while this convention is used in the (English) text of the last two novels, it's stated in-character that the trade-language of Ringworlders actually uses a prefix to tell them apart.
- The Forevers from Ayreon
- The Fallen
- The Thrones, the Dominions, the Powers, the Virtues
- The Powers That Be
- The Powers What Is
- Keys to the Kingdom has a lot of these: Denizens, Nithlings, Piper's Children, etc.
- DMFA has Beings, with sapient non-Being creatures being Creatures.
- The Endless
- And, in possibly the least creative example ever: The Race.
- The Chosen
- Originally, the Zerg and the Protoss, although they were knocked down to lowercase letters later on, because real-life species names aren't capitalized.
- Mass Effect: not most species, but the Protheans, the Collectors, and especially the Reapers.
- The Others from A Song of Ice and Fire. Renamed the White Walkers for the live action adaptation, presumably because they didn't think this trope would come across as clearly in speech.
- The Great Old Ones, the Outer Gods, the Elder Gods and the Elder Things
- Immortals and Aberrations from El Goonish Shive.
- The Shadows
- The Caster Chronicles: Caster, Mortal, Incubus, Dark, Light, Claimed...
- The Stormlight Archive: Ryshadim, Parshendi. Interestingly, the parshmen (mindless Parshendi, essentially) are not capitalized.
- By tradition, all sapient species in the Star Wars Expanded Universe (up to and including Humans, Depending on the Writer).
- The Homeward Bounders has Them, so dreaded that They are not only always given a capital letter, Their pronouns are italicised as well.
- In general, many Tabletop Games use capital letters to distinguish rules and mechanics from other text. That is, the difference between "strength", how physically strong your character is, and Strength, the number on your character sheet that represents their strength mechanically.
- White Wolf seems to be in love with this trope, and any RPG they publish will have multiple instances of this. Aside from the Exalted examples already listed above, we have the Beast and Vitae from Vampire, the Wyrm, the Weaver, and the Wyld from Werewolf, the Second Breath and the Wyld again from Exalted, Legend, Fate, Knacks, Birthrights, and Scions from Scion, and numerous other examples.
- From a Naruto Fan Fic: "Capital letters were very useful when dealing with Gaara. They helped to distinguish between sand, which got in your shorts, and Sand, which could kill you."
- Geneforge: the Shapers create and modify living organisms by Shaping.
- There's actually an American conspiracy theory built around this trope. The United States Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment to it were written and ratified more than seventy-five years apart, during which time the trend towards capitalization of all nouns, regardless of their position in the sentence, fell out of use in American English. The theory claims that this change — specifically, the capitalization of the word "citizen" in the former but not the latter — was deliberate rather than just Antiquated Linguistics falling into disuse, and created two separate, legally distinct classes of citizenship. They also make a big deal about the DC Organic Act of 1871, passed soon after the Fourth Amendment, that reorganized the government of Washington, DC. From there, the theory claims that it's possible to attain "pre-Fourteenth Amendment" citizenship by filing special forms, granting all sorts of unique freedoms to the point of rendering a person a nation unto himself. Naturally, this isn't true; it's simply that in the 1860s and 70s, we had capitalization rules that were more or less the same as those we have today, while in the 1780s, there were no such rules, and English-speakers just put Capitals in the Oddest of Places.
- Relatedly, however: Capitals can have special meaning in the law...but only when the capitals are assigned to a definition. This is because capital letters are one of a few common methods of indicating that a word being used is supposed to be a proper noun referring to a specific thing, rather than a common noun referring to a class of things. To give some common examples (in America anyway):
- One of the most common uses is in contract drafting, where a lot of terms tend to be defined. For instance: When selling a business set up as a corporation, you can do it in two ways, asset sale and stock sale. In the latter, you just sell the stock; in the former, you sell everything the corporation owns to the buyer, with a few critical exceptions, leaving the corporation as a (hopefully) giant pile of money and not much else (when the sale is done, the owners typically dissolve the corporation and take the money and whatever else remains out in proportion to their shares). The reasons to pick one over the other don't concern us; just suffice it to say that asset sales are much more desirable than stock sales. Unfortunately, an asset sale means you're going to need to actually write a contract selling all this crap, and it would be tremendous pain to recite every time you referred to it. So instead of saying, say, "all the stuff TropeCo owns, except for this thing and that thing and the other thing and these things and the painting in the CEO's office" every time you refer to what's being sold, you just have a definitions section in which you say "'Assets' means all the stuff TropeCo owns, except for this thing and that thing and the other thing and these things and the painting in the CEO's office" and just use "Assets" (with a capital "A") ever afterward. This also means that you can talk about "assets" (with a small "a") in other contexts and be clear.
- Courts are wont to use Magic Capitals as well, generally using them for the same reasons. Classic ones are "Plaintiff" and "Defendant," being used in place of the actual names of the plaintiff and defendant in the case, because (1) people reading at home might forget who sued who and (2) sometimes one or the other has a really long or complicated name (particularly when one, the other, or both is a corporation or government agency). The court will usually also define terms if something it would be useful to have shorthand for will appear often, and use capitals to indicate when a defined term is being used. For instance, if Alice sues the Bureau (a state government agency), Charlie and Donna (employees of the government agency), and Edward (a private contractor doing work for the Bureau), the Court may choose to group the Bureau, Charlie, and Donna as "the State Defendants" because they are the government and they might have different rules apply to them (e.g. sovereign immunity) and might have long sections devoted to what the law is respecting them. Also, the State Defendants (see what we did there?) are almost certainly all represented by the state's Attorney General's office, while Edward will have his own lawyer, so they may make different arguments; that means the court may need to address the State Defendants' arguments and those of Edward separately.
- American lawyers and judges will always capitalize the word "Court" whenever it refers to the United States Supreme Court, even if the full name is not being used. (Example: In United States v. Windsor [a US Supreme Court case], the Court held..." but "In Windsor v. United States [a trial court case], the court held..."). They may also capitalize it in reference to their state's highest court, but not always.
- This habit is dying out a bit, with some courts dropping most of the capitalization, but it persists elsewhere and isn't going anywhere in contract writing.
- Used frequently by Katherine Kurtz in her Deryni works to distinguish magically-enhanced things/processes from analogous ordinary ones (healing vs. Healing, veil vs. Veil). Also used in particular phrases coined to describe magical objects and processes, such as Mind Seeing, Truth Reading, Truth Saying, Transfer Portal.
- More 'official' than 'magic, but Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, has a passage in which the main character navigated a small island. It is so small, in fact, that there is only one of most things-hence titles such as 'the Car', 'the Street', and 'the Squeegee'.
- AURYN in The NeverEnding Story is always spelled as such.
- As is CHIM from The Elder Scrolls.
- Terry Pratchett also uses this, for example in The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents where in one header you find out that Mister Bunnsy finds himself in "the Dark Wood".
- This could have been the name of the forest, though, in which case it would have been justified.
- In many Witches books, the act of temporarily occupying an animal's brain is called Borrowing.
- It's also lampshaded in The Truth, in which there's a comment in the narration that it's usually a sign of Sanity Slippage when people start thinking in capitals.
- The Sci Fi Channel's miniseries The Lost Room is based around a series of about one hundred items called Objects that possess strange properties. Objects featured include The Key, The Pen, The Glass Eye and The Bus Ticket.
- Wiki Words.
- Keys to the Kingdom again, which has the eponymous Keys, only one of which even resembles a key.
- The Front Door, Nothing, The House, The Will... he murders it.
- The Fence of The Amory Wars is another name for Heaven, where the Prise hang out (another name for angels).
- In Harry Potter, there's the Trace (a term which, interestingly, only comes up a good deal after the concept has been well established). Places can be made Unplottable, words can be Tabooed, and people Stunned. In most cases, though, novel magical concepts/devices will be capitalized and a made-up word, such as Occlumency (not, say, Clouding). Or a pre-existing word, such as "squib" (a small explosive) or "snitch" (a tattle-tale), will be used in so unrelated a manner that it feels like a made-up word. As is common in other fiction, the capitalization trend doesn't apply when it's something the author didn't invent: wands and dragons versus Time-Turners and Thestrals.
Among the everyday (to wizards) terms that are capitalized in Harry Potter: the names of the game Quidditch, all the positions, and all the balls; the names of other games, like Gobstones; the name of every spell and potion; many generic job titles, like "Healer"; subdivisions of people denoting special attributes or abilities, like Parseltongue or Animagus; many plant and animal names; many, many man-made products, like various types of candy (it's usually unclear what's a brand name and what's a generic term — there seem to be a lot of things in the wizarding world that are only made by one company/family/individual, or at least only one in Britain). The school subjects are also always capitalized, but that's a stylistic choice a writer might make even if they were just Chemistry and Creative Writing instead of Transfiguration and Defense Against the Dark Arts.
- The <<Sword>>, The <<Blood>>, and to <<See>> in Yuri Genre Visual Novel Akai Ito and its sort-of sequel Aoi Shiro. The <<Sword>> has a proper name though, it's Ame-no-Murakumo.
- Doesn't enter the above category for being a group instead of a race: LOST has the Others.
- Oracle Of Tao does a combination of science and magic, and pre-existing scientific terms are lowercase while that of Magic are uppercase. A magical portal joining two worlds is a Gate, the world of nonbeing is the Void, and Light and Darkness refer to balance of the two (and since it is Taoism-based, they are normally coupled). Then we have various scientific processes like cloning, which are lowercase for the mundane science, and capitalized for Cloning magic. Likewise, when referring to a light or dark room, these two are lowercase. There seem to some inconsistencies in this though...
- Supreme Commander has a fictional religion called, "The Way." So does (Gene Roddenberry's) Andromeda, though it seems like theirs is based on/inspired by Taoism.
- The Knight and Rogue Series has Gifts, which give people the ability to detect potentially dangerous wild magic, as well as a slew of other randomly assorted unreliable abilities such as knowing if your in danger (which can be anything from being stalked to having your aunt trying to arrange your marriage) or taming animals.
- Used quite a bit in the Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms series. The Tradition is, like the Force, always capitalized, as are many roles and patterns.
- Storyteller Mark Lewis sometimes remarks that when he first read Winnie-the-Pooh he noticed that some words were capitalized even though they weren't proper nouns. Much later he asked a British friend why these words were capitalized, and said friend responded "Because they are Important."
- The Super Mario Bros. powerups are always capitalized. It's not a mushroom, it's a Super Mushroom, it's not a fire flower, it's a Fire Flower, etc.
- LIS_DEAD has a fair list of these, from Him to the Agents of the Organization
- Magykal words in Septimus Heap are always capitalized.
- "The Change" in The Last Dove to refer to the ability of all the characters to shapeshift.
- Christians, and some editions of The Bible, often capitalize pronouns that refer to God or Jesus to show reverence to Him. Other editions of the Bible drop the practice except to distinguish between God or Jesus and another male character in the same scene.
- The criminal hackers who regularly meet in a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, in Vernor Vinge's novella "True Names", regularly use this in-game for things like True Names (your real-world identity), The Great Enemy (cops), and The True Death (real-world death of a player).
- In Interworld, the protagonists can travel through universes. One particular line is "I went for a walk. Then I went for a Walk."
- The short story "It's Such a Beautiful Day", by Isaac Asimov, involves a teleportation device known as a "Door". This is lampshaded by the mechanic:
"That's a door, too, ma'am. You don't give that kind a capital letter when you write it."
- People draw a distinction between ideologies and the political parties that have appropriated the names of the ideologies. For example, there are "small-l libertarians" and "big-L Libertarians".
- "Cheese" in Who Moved My Cheese is written with a capital C when it refers to what the littlepeople want in life.
- Whenever there is No Name Given, but you still need to refer to a specific character, it's a fairly common practice to simply pick a particularly apt description and capitalize it as a Proper Noun (Barkeep, for example), either In-Universe or at least in discussion of the work (or in the credits). Expect this to overlap heavily with Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
- The Stormlight Archive: Shardblades, Shardplate.
- Vernor Vinge's Zones of Thought trilogy features plenty of examplesnote , but one of the strongest examples in the trilogy occurs when Beyonders trapped in the Slow Zone start referring to it sullenly as "Down Here".
- In the Total Drama fanfic, The Legend of Total Drama Island, Cody gets "The Mother Of All Wedgies" as opposed to just any old wedgie.
- The Night Land and Awake In The Night Land capitalizes anything that has to do with the titular Night Land. The adventurers have to get Prepared before going Out, and they must take care to not be Destroyed.
- BAD: Or, the Dumbing of America by Paul Fussell begins with an explanation of what separates "BAD" things from the merely "bad":
Bad is something like dog-do on the sidewalk, or a failing grade, or a case of scarlet fever—something no one ever said was good. BAD is different. It is something phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant, or boring that many Americans can be persuaded it is genuine, graceful, bright, or fascinating. Lawrence Welk is a low example, George Bush a high. For a thing to be really BAD, it must exhibit elements of the pretentious, the overwrought, or the fraudulent. Bathroom faucet handles that cut your fingers are bad. If gold-plated, they are BAD. Dismal food is bad. Dismal food pretentiously served in a restaurant associated with the word gourmet is BAD.