No "I" in "internet"?

"Dr. Don Francisco Salva...at the Royal Academy of Sciences.presented an Electrical Telegraph of his own invention."
Monthly Magazine, 1797

"We have heard so much about Television lately that we are apt to forget that no portion of the apparatus used is novel to scientists."
J. Buckingham, Matter and Radiation, 1930

A teapot-based tempest erupted this past summer when Wired News' copy chief Tony Long announced that his publication would henceforth use internet instead of Internet. (He also declared the lowercase web and net to be the new versions of Web and Net.) Editors across the land waved their in-house style manuals and harrumphed that they'd never knuckle under to such trendiness. The Internet, said they, is a "distinct entity" and as such deserved its initial cap as a reward.

Illustration: Aaron Meshon

Style mavens from some of the larger newspapers passed the buck, claiming that they'd wait until "the dictionaries" recognized internet as legitimate usage. The dictionaries, bless their descriptivist hearts, passed the buck right back, stating that they couldn't possibly declare internet to be common currency until newspapers started using it.

So is Wired News ahead of the curve or jumping the gun? Despite strong feelings on both sides of the debate, the answer isn't easy.

On the one hand, it's certainly true that the capless internet variation is in common use. Plenty of newspapers have taken a seat on the bandwagon, including The Australian, The Times of London, The Guardian, The Independent, and a smattering of smaller U.S. papers. A search for "internet" in the LexisNexis database of newspapers, magazines, and journals from around the world returns hundreds of articles on any given day.

On the other hand, my version of Microsoft Word scolds me by placing a squiggly green line under each instance of internet in this column, which is the program's subtle way of telling me that I've messed up.

Still, on a more serious level, the Internet (IEEE Spectrum style dictates an uppercase "I") seems like something pretty important, and important things need to be recognized as such. One way we do that in English is to capitalize the first letter, as we do universally with proper names, brands, and references to deities of all persuasions.

The technology realm has long recognized the power of capital letters, most notably in the phenomenon of BiCapitalization , whereby a brand name uses nonstandard capitalization. PostScript, WordPerfect, VisiCalc, and MicroSoft (the original spelling of the company's name) are just a few of the hundreds, nay thousands, of examples that marketing types and brand managers have foisted upon an unsuspecting world. (Any word that includes a capital after the first letter is said to be inner-capped .)

In hacker circles, this reached a ridiculous extreme with studlycaps , wHeRe CaPiTaLiZaTioN bEcOmEs moRE or LesS rAnDom. (Hackers use the adjective studly to mean impressive or powerful; its applicability to random uppercase usage escapes me.) Tech types also like to use initial capitals as an ironic statement of importance. For example, a long-delayed product is often said to be coming to market Real Soon Now .

The capitalization of important things explains why we used to write of the Telegraph, the Radio, the Television, and even the Personal Computer. In fact, English writers used to capitalize all their nouns, following the influence of German and its capitalized nouns. It was only in the late 18th or early 19th century that this practice fell out of favor. Even new inventions become humdrum parts of the workaday world, so now we don't think twice about writing telegraph, radio, television, and personal computer. (Curiously, we feel more comfortable with the abbreviations TV and PC instead of tv and pc.)

Surely now the Internet, too, has earned its own humdrumness. What seemed magical, even miraculous, 10 years ago is now just another business tool and entertainment channel. It's like the atmosphere, and you don't see people writing that word as Atmosphere.

But then there's the "distinct entity" argument: yes, we're all used to the Internet's existence, but it still seems different somehow. It's not an amorphous quantity, like what the word television implies (as in "everything on television stinks"), and it's not a natural phenomenon, like the atmosphere. The Internet is a specific, human-made thing with a unique place in our world.

Ah, I hear you say, but so is the power grid, and nobody writes this as Power Grid. True, but there's an always-on everywhereness to the power grid (recent blackouts notwithstanding), and this mainstream quality makes the all-lowercase spelling feel right. Maybe that's the meat of the matter. When (not if) the Internet becomes as ubiquitous and as unnoticeable and as mainstream as the power grid, perhaps then we'll come naturally to writing internet.

Now, about that hyphen in e-mail....

About The Author

Paul Mcfedries is a technical and language writer with more than 40 books to his credit. He also runs Word Spy, a Web site and mailing list that tracks new words and phrases ( http://www.wordspy.com).

Advertisement
Advertisement