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.

Sign for Zeitgeist Coffee shop in Seattle
Let’s go to Zeitgeist and talk about the zeitgeist.

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.

Zeppelin in 1912, old photo
Is that a zeppelin in your pocket or…

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.)


Afterthoughts:

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.

A befuddled Random on zeitgeist
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6 thoughts on “A befuddled Random on zeitgeist

  • 03-14-2012 at 11:50 am
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    Now, see? THIS is why I like you. You’ve articulated the gist of my lack of concern over whether it is capitalized or not.

    My research was not nearly as indepth as yours. It consisted of capturing the Wikipedia URL for inserting a link in the post and noticing that Wikipedia capitalized it. Mentally I wondered why and poltergeist might have entered my mind. And then I moved on.

    Thank you for teaching me this. I am joining you in Americanizing the term. If it’s a coffehouse, it gets a Z. Otherwise, z.

    Reply
    • 03-14-2012 at 1:42 pm
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      I see that you are much wiser than I am since you spend your time on more important things than researching the capitalization of German words. On the other hand, thanks to your word-of-the-week efforts, ‘zeitgeist’ will likely start showing up everywhere, so maybe clarifying a position on the state of its first letter might have been worthwhile after all.

      Thanks for joining me.

      Reply
  • 03-21-2012 at 1:52 pm
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    I was particularly interested in reading this because I am working on a grammar post, but living in Southern Louisiana this is the first time I have heard of this word. I love walking away with new information, especially since I am planning a surprise trip for my son to Germany hopefully this summer (he is infatuated with the country for some reason). Anyway, I did walk away a bit smarter than I was five minutes ago:)

    Great post!

    Reply
    • 03-21-2012 at 2:06 pm
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      I’m glad I helped share a little bit of information! Actually, I walked away a little bit smarter after writing this post because I had never researched zeitgeist before.

      Since my mom was born in Germany and I’m three-quarters German, I have an interest in that country too. I hope the trip there works out for you this summer. I’d love to go there some day. (I technically have visited Germany before, but I was only five at the time, so I’m not sure it counts.)

      Thank you for your comment!

      Reply
  • 04-01-2012 at 7:53 pm
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    I shall trip on over to HC to give props for selecting the word (which has been in my face a lot lately). I am delighted to hear what your research has given us. I am particularly pleased, as a wordophile, that I have some say in its use, if/when I do use it.
    I’m really enjoying your blog, and I just found it today!!! KUTGW (keepupthe goodwork).

    🙂
    janet

    PS
    (I just have to say this – I spell checked wordophile because it is redlined and I was given one option to replace it with. One. That is utterly disgusting!)

    Reply
    • 04-01-2012 at 8:20 pm
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      I imagine HC would love to hear from you. I don’t know if I also mentioned that “befuddled” was an earlier HC word-of-the-week. I appreciate her championing some of our underused words.

      I’m glad you are enjoying my blog. Thank you for saying so!

      Reply

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