“Last March, we attended a march at the Capitol.”
This sentence might look completely normal and unexceptional, but it contains an interesting feature: the capitonym. This funny word is one of those features of English that everyone knows, but they don’t know that they know. Can you spot it in the sentence above?
In short, a capitonym is a word that changes its meaning when it is capitalized. Let’s look at this in a little more depth.
What Exactly Is a Capitonym?
Capitonym is a portmanteau of the word capital and the suffix onym. Capital refers to a capital letter, and onym is a suffix that means “word.” But a capitonym is more than just a capitalized word. It refers to a pair of words that are spelled exactly the same but have different meanings when one is capitalized.
Is a Capitonym a Homograph, Homophone, or Homonym?
By the strictest definition, a capitonym is a type of homograph. A homograph is a word that has different meanings but is spelled exactly the same. Pronunciation can also be different. For example, lead can mean “a type of metal” or “to guide someone.”
Like with homographs, in capitonyms, the spelling does not change at all. Only the capitalization changes. Most of the time, the two forms of the capitonym are also pronounced the same. So, is it still a homograph or is it a homophone or homonym?
The answer depends on the definition that you use for each of these linguistic terms. Some people use homograph to refer only to words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciations. In general, however, most people use homograph for any words that are spelled the same but have different meanings.
The definitions get murkier between homophones and homonyms. It really depends on who you ask. Homophone literally means “same sound.” In capitonyms like march and March, the words definitely sound the same. But many definitions say a homophone is a word that sounds the same but has a different spelling and meaning, such as two and too.
Then there are homonyms. In the strictest definitions, a homonym is a word that sounds the same and has a different meaning, regardless of the spelling. It’s often used to refer to words that have a noun and verb form, such as spell. Other definitions say a homonym can be either a homograph or a homophone or both. For these language experts, a homonym is more of an umbrella term.
With that definition, all capitonyms are homographs and homonyms. If you subscribe to the idea that a homophone is any word that sounds the same and can be spelled the same, too, many capitonyms are also homophones.
Confusing, right? Let's look at some examples.
Examples of Capitonyms
English has many capitonyms. As we discussed above, some are pronounced the same, while others change pronunciations when capitalized. We’ll look at some examples of each.
Same Pronunciation (Homographs and Homophones)
The opening sentence to this article used “March” (the month) and “march” (a type of protest). What are some other examples of capitonyms that have the same pronunciation?
- We ate turkey when we visited Turkey.
- I may travel to England next May.
- He lent me several books to read during Lent.
- When did Bill pay his bill?
- Today at school, I learned about ionic bonds in chemistry and Ionic architecture in history.
Different Pronunciation (Homographs)
Here are some examples of capitonyms that have different pronunciations.
- The stress from my job and my marriage has me feeling like Job in the Bible.
- I ate a delicious scone in Scone when I traveled to Scotland.
- I can’t get mobile phone signal when I drive through the tunnel in Mobile, Alabama.
- The Polish woman had lovely nail polish.
- Do they eat many lima beans in Lima, Peru?
How to Use Capitonyms
Usually, capitonyms aren’t something we try to use when we write. They just occur naturally depending on our word choice. But capitonyms can be used deliberately for a few reasons.
Capitonyms are a great way to make puns, or jokes that use word play. Here’s an example:
- “Did you clean your windows?”
- “Yes, I ran a disk cleanup, and my computer is running much better.”
The joke is that if you capitalized windows, it would refer to a PC that uses the Windows operating system.
You can also use capitonyms as a poetic device or to show emphasis on certain ideas. Consider the poem Job’s Job by Richard Lederer:
In August, an august patriarch
Was reading an ad in Reading, Mass.
Long-suffering Job secured a job
To polish piles of Polish brass.
Can you think of any other examples of capitonyms? Let us know in the comments below.