Everything you need to know about capitonyms

You think capitalisation isn’t important? Then you haven’t heard of capitonyms. These are words that change their meaning and sometimes their pronunciation depending on whether they are capitalised or not. We’ve put together everything you need to know about capitonyms, including some surprising examples.


Photo credit: Piotr Łaskawski

When to capitalise in English

It’s very important that you pay attention to the capitalisation of letters when you’re writing in English. If you’re a native German speaker, of course you know you have to capitalise polite forms of address (“Sie”, “Ihnen”, “Ihrer”), not to mention nouns. When I once mentioned to an American acquaintance that all German nouns are capitalised, she thought I was joking. But it’s no joke! Capital letters play different roles in different languages.

In German, adjectives are not capitalized, even if they refer to nationality: “der amerikanische Präsident”, “ein deutsches Bier”. In English though, it is correct to write “the American writer” or “a German car”. These are called “proper adjectives” because they derive from “proper nouns”.

Proper nouns and common nouns – What’s the difference?

In English we differentiate between “proper” and “common” nouns. “Proper” nouns are the ones that identify a unique entity and get capitalized: country names, nationalities, religions, days of the week. “England” is a proper noun because it is a name for a specific country, whereas “dog” is not a proper noun. It’s a common noun (no matter how uncommon your dog) because it refers to any member of a group of dog-animals.

An English usage that can be confusing to learners (and native speakers too) is the capitonym.

Capitonym definition

A capitonym is a word whose meaning (and sometimes pronunciation) changes depending on whether it is capitalized.

Examples of capitonyms

Some pairs of capitonyms are:

  • Turkey (the country) and turkey (the bird)
  • August (the month) and august (distinguished)
  • Catholic (of the Roman Catholic faith) and catholic (diverse, broad-based)

Verbs can also be capitonyms. For instance:

  • March (the month) and march (to walk)
  • May (the month) and may (to be possible)

In German, there are many of these pairs, such as “Laut” (sound)/ “laut” (loud) and “Morgen” (morning)/”morgen” (tomorrow). Context is everything!

Capitonyms that change pronunciation

Sometimes a capitonym changes not only in meaning, but also in pronunciation. For example:

  • Mobile (the city in Alabama) is pronounced with emphasis on the second syllable, but when you’re talking about your mobile (phone), the emphasis is on the first syllable.
  • Polish (from Poland) has a long “o” and polish (substance that makes something smooth when rubbed in) has a short one.

Capitalising in science, religion and philosophy

Capital letters may be used to differentiate between a set of objects and a particular example of that object. For instance, there is a difference between a moon – any natural satellite – and the Moon, the natural satellite of Earth.

Capitonyms are prominent in terminology relating to philosophy, religion, and politics. Capitalized words are often used to differentiate a philosophical idea from how the concept is referred to in everyday life, or to demonstrate respect for an entity or institution. Examples include “Good”, “Beauty” and “Truth”. Admittedly, these don’t come up very frequently in our corporate translations at EnglishBusiness, but you never know …

The language circus

The poem “Job’s Job” from Richard Lederer’s The Word Circus is an amusing example of the use of capitonyms.

German speakers please note: “Job” (pronounced “dʒəʊb”) is the English name of the Biblical character “Ljob”.

In August, an august patriarch
Was reading an ad in Reading, Mass.
Long-suffering Job secured a job
To polish piles of Polish brass.

So stay on your toes when you’re writing in English! Otherwise, your reader may not know whether you’re going to march in March or whether you may march in May.

Have you ever been unsure about English spelling or grammar? Contact the experts at EnglishBusiness for advice on specialist translations and your corporate language!

This post was written by

Brenda Benthien

Brenda Benthien

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