Thursday, April 15, 2010

Blame it on ForTran

kw: observations, musings, wordplay

People have been goofing around with alternative and aberrant spelling and capitalization of words in English (and in many other languages) for generations, but there seems to be a current rash of capitalization creativity over the past three or four decades. When I first learned FORTRAN II, its name was always written in all caps. Then about the time FORTRAN IV came out (1966), a kind of tipping point occurred, with newer models of many line printers being able to print both upper and lower case, and ForTran was briefly popular. That makes sense, as the name means Formula Translation. But pretty soon, Fortran was adopted as a secondary standard, and FORTRAN has remained the preferred name.

Jump forward a decade or so, with the spread of languages such as Pascal and C. Two programming styles arose, and still vie for dominance. In one, all text is in lower case, except quoted strings that are in sentence form. Constructs such as variable names are produced by using the underscore character (specific_gravity or cost_analysis). In the other, programmers are encouraged to write names that are capitalized, with constructs leaving out the underscore, and having each word capitalized (SpecificGravity or CostAnalysis). This latter convention, as much as any other influence, has led to millions of people thinking up alternative capitalizations.

So when a presentation package needed a name, somebody at Microsoft came up with PowerPoint. Now it has been joined by LeaseRite, JavaRanch, StateMaster, WikiNotes, FrontPage, etc. In transition to other forms, there are partial abbreviations such as RegEx (for regular expression, AKA regex); then a flurry of things like GEForce (or GeForce), GForge and OpenID.

An interesting side branch is the word with a single capital letter, but it is not the first: eBay or iPhone. Another is the fully mixed-case word: TaB, TeX, or LaTeX. This culminated in a logo I saw in an ad today: SKrAPr. While it is yet another of those "wait, there's more!" over-marketed gimcracks, it does have the most creative name to come along lately. I propose calling all of these, from ForTran to PowerPoint to TaB to SKrAPr by the new term MultiCaps. They have become a special class of proper noun.

I note that Blogger's spelling checker is complaining about nearly all of these, except for a few older ones. Spell checkers are always going to be a step behind. Then again, so are us fogies!

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