The Knee-capping of intercapping

“Against Camel Case,” my attack on the intrusion of capital letters into the middles of words, is published in the 29 November 2009 issue of the New York Times Magazine. Herewith an online bibliographical supplement.

The Wikipedia entry on camel case is perhaps the most thorough treatment, and traces in detail the contribution of software programming to the trend. For those interested, wiki pages elsewhere also explain and critique the use of camel case in programming. As for journalistic treatments, William Safire tackled camel case in 1984 and again in 1997. New Scientist looked at the problem in 2007. That same year, font genius Jonathan Hoefler wondered if camel case could redeem itself by making web links newly legible. Among language mavens, Bill Walsh tried to draw the line in his 2000 book Lapsing into a Comma; some of his arguments appear in one of his online columns. He wasn’t able to, of course. You can also trace the camel’s depredations in back issues of the online magazine Copyediting.

In the course of researching modern camel case, I stumbled across the medieval phenomenon of run-together text, formally known as scriptura continua, and could not resist chasing it down the rabbit hole. The pioneer and dean of this paleographic subfield is Paul Saenger. As I explain in my article, Saenger believes that the introduction of space between words in the seventh and eighth centuries laid the psychic groundwork for modern individual consciousness—that most of the intellectual breakthroughs that Marshall McLuhan credited to Gutenberg are more properly to be attributed to monks in Ireland and England, who, because their native tongues of Gaelic and Saxon shared so little with the Romance language family, needed space between words to make Latin a little easier for them. Saenger first set forth this bold theory in “Silent Reading: Its Impact on Late Medieval Script and Society,” in the medieval-studies journal Viator, vol. 13 (1982), pp. 367–414, an article that, as far as I can tell, has never been digitized, not even by any of the for-pay scholarly databases. Saenger elaborated the theory and provided further evidence for it in his book Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford University Press, 1997). Because the original journal article
is less heavily laden with technical descriptions of manuscript evidence, I as a layperson found it livelier and easier to digest. Saenger’s thesis is not uncontroversial! Reviews of his book in the scholarly literature either acclaimed it as a paradigm-busting breakthrough or disparaged it angrily—or both.

What is to be done? Here is a simple program of orthographic reclamation: When all the elements of a camel-case compound are words that could stand on their own, slice it open: Master Card, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Word Perfect. When some elements are letters or word fragments, sew it up and capitalize conventionally: Iphone, Ebay, Fedex. Proper names with hyphens can keep them (Jell-O), and new compounds can stand unaltered if their capitalization is traditional (Facebook). Humanism in orthography forever!

Update, Nov. 28: Michael Hartford lucidly lays out the case for camel case, at least in Irish and in programming languages.

Mule deaths of late

The Onion this week reprints its issue of 6 October 1783, including such articles as “Thousands More Teeth Lost,” “Rural Quaker Scandalized by Intricate Furniture Pattern,” “Citizens Now Free to Practise Any Form of Protestantism They Want,” and “Mule-Deaths of Late.” If, like me, you are the sort who laughs at such things as the Donald Barthelme story “An Hesitation on the Bank of the Delaware,” in which a soldier warns George Washington, “But, General, unless we launch the boats pretty shortly, the attack will lose the element of furprife,” you will probably appreciate the humor.