I love words (though it may not be obvious given how I mangle language on this blog). That may be why, when I saw that Hippie Cahier had declared this week’s word to be zeitgeist, I wondered how I could play a part in spreading the word.
Given how my mind works, it’s not surprising that I zeroed in on Hippie’s comment that the proper usage is to capitalize Zeitgeist. I’m very grateful to her for giving me that hook because I’m not smart enough to use zeitgeist in an actual sentence.
You may have noticed that I am using the lowercase form of the word. That’s right, I’m putting my foot down firmly in the popular-usage camp. I don’t do this [completely] arbitrarily. After many seconds of in-depth research, I found that zeitgeist has been capitalized because it was
stolen borrowed from German, a language that capitalizes all nouns.
With all due respect to the German language, I have to say, “Who gives a rat’s ass that nouns are capitalized in German?” (Please excuse my French.) If you are writing a sentence in German, by all means capitalize the nouns. But if you’re using a single German word in a sentence otherwise written in English, the capitalization makes no sense.
English has certain conventions as to what words should be capitalized, and just being a noun does not automatically make a word qualify. Now I’m not writing this as some sort of patriotic, rah-rah English bullshit. I am saying that using Zeitgeist is actually a communication issue, though an admittedly minor one.
When the average English-speaking person reads a sentence with a word capitalized, it’s reasonable for them to assume that the word is a proper noun and that it names something. Is it the name of a person? Or maybe a band, a city, an organization? If in reading a sentence I’m given pause by the capitalization of a word that “shouldn’t” be, then the flow of communication has been compromised.
Okay, I’ll admit I say this with tongue-in-cheek. The context of any sentence using zeitgeist would probably make its usage clear. The truth is, the main reason I resist Zeitgeist is because it makes no sense. For one thing, the capitalization of German nouns in English sentences is inconsistently applied. When was the last time you read a sentence that capitalized poltergeist (unless it was naming the movie) or zeppelin (unless it was naming the band)?
In fact, my [outdated] third edition of The American Heritage Dictionary has both those words in lowercase. Zeitgeist, however, is capitalized. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the fourth edition has zeitgeist by now. English is a wonderfully malleable language.) On the other hand, Garner’s Modern American Usage (third edition) has this to say about zeitgeist:
Though originally capitalized as a German noun, this word is now fully naturalized and should be lowercased….
What do you think? Should zeitgeist ever have been capitalized? If so, what do you think about the apparent demise of that convention in our language? (If you’ve read this far, I figure there is at least a small chance you give a rat’s ass.)
If I weren’t trying to limit the length of this already-too-long post, I might explore such curious phrases as “give a rat’s ass,” “tongue-in-cheek” and “excuse my French.”
If I ever pick a word of the week, malleable would have to be on the list, along with myriad and discombobulated. In fact, I’m befuddled that I don’t see those words used more often.