In a Word: Letters Big and Small

What’s so capital about capital letters?


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Senior managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

If Julius Caesar had access to today’s social media, one common response from his followers might be, “Why are you yelling all time?” That’s because Caesar would write everything in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS because that’s all he knew; during his time, the Latin alphabet didn’t have both small and large versions of each letter. Lowercase letters hadn’t been invented yet.

Changes in the alphabet came about, like so many other things, because of the progress of technology. Long ago, written text was primarily recorded on two main types of media: papyrus and stone. Plant-based papyrus had a pretty rough surface, making it difficult to print delicate or intricate curves with consistency and speed — though perhaps not as difficult as etching in stone.

But over time, parchment and vellum (both originally made from animal skins) came into more common use among scribes. Not only would these media last longer, but they provided a smoother surface on which to write. This meant that not only were letters with more curves were more feasible, but scribes could also write faster. It’s this combination that led to the development of a set of smaller, more intricate, more connected letters.

The smaller versions of the letters were called (in Latin) minuscula littera — “slightly smaller letters” — and the larger letters were referred to as maiuscula littera — “somewhat larger letters.” Later, in English, they were described with the adjectives minuscule and the majuscule. The latter didn’t have much life outside of typography, unlike minuscule, which caught on and then was used to describe ever smaller and smaller things.

In the beginning, there were no standard rules for when to use minuscule or majuscule letters, but from around 300 to 700, scribes more or less settled on the idea of using the majuscule letters to emphasize certain words, leaving the minuscule versions to do the bulk of the work. Punctuation hadn’t taken shape yet, either, so one type of emphasis we start to see during this time is the use of majuscule letters to indicate the beginning of a new statement. This type of letter came to be called capital letter, from the Latin caput “head,” because it occurred at the head of a sentence.

In the 9th century, Charles the Great (aka Charlemagne), King of the Franks, made a push for greater literacy and recordkeeping. The mix of majuscule and minuscule made documents easier to read, so they were more accessible to the public at large, and certain capitalization practices became standardized by his scribes and historians. What’s more, the form of the minuscule letters they used coalesced — becoming what we refer to today as Carolingian minuscule — and spread across Europe under Charlemagne and after.

After the creation of the printing press and the proliferation of moveable type in the 14th century, the Carolingian minuscule became the model for most type designers, so those forms spread far and wide to wherever texts were being printed in the Latin alphabet — including England.

On a printing press, a typesetter (originally called a compositor) builds a text by placing, in proper order, metal slugs with individual characters stamped into them. That means that, to create a single printed page bearing 250 words, the typesetter would use 1,250 or more individual slugs, not even including any punctuation. That’s a lot of letters!

To stay organized, they kept their type in a wooden case divided into separate, rectangular compartments, each compartment holding multiple copies of a single letter. (See the image above.) Because the minuscule letters were needed much more often than the majuscule, they were kept closest to hand in the lower case, with the majuscule letters stored in the upper case.

Which is why, today, the small and large letters are referred to as lowercase and uppercase, respectively — because that’s literally where they were kept in a printing shop.

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  1. Andy, fascinating article on the history of writing/printing. Upper case and lower case makes more sense with the origins you wrote about.


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