Wednesday, February 19, 2003

David Post at the Volokh conspiracy is discussing whether the internet should be spelled with a capital or lower case i. (He also refers to this New York Times story). This is actually a bugbear of mine. I personally have always spelled it with a lower case i, because the word "internet" is a noun backformed from the verb "internetwork". That is, an internet is a group of networks capable of internetworking. As David observes, there is one internet that outcompeted all the others that exist, and this one is normally referred to as "the internet" or "the Internet", and it has no other name. The fact that it has no other name is perhaps the problem. However, there are precedents for this in the English language. A moon is a natural object orbiting a planet. The moon is the one of these that happens to orbit the earth. Do we capitalise moon in this case? No, we don't. (We don't capitalise the earth, either, although that is not quite the same). It still isn't a proper noun, even though we are referring to only one of them. (Although, when I think about it some more, I don't think even this is terribly abnormal. Consider the definite article before any verb. "Give me the stapler" is referring to a specific stapler, and context says which one, as context does when we say "moon", or "internet". "Stapler" remains a descriptive noun, and we do not capitalise).

Part of the issue is probably the nature of internets. They tend to internetwork with one another, and then you have one bigger interent. By their nature, there is a certain tendency to end up with only one of them.

In looking at why "Internet" is generally capitalised, it is worth looking at how the word came into common use. In about 1993, there were various magazine and newspaper articles about this mysterious thing "the Internet" which connected lots of computers. Then, a year or two later, most people actually started to use it. The fact that it was a distributed, non-centralised network without anyone centrally controlling it was something that took quite some time to sink in to most people. At first, most people thought that it was some centralised service that some specific organisation had invented and was running, and that a proper noun - probably a brandname - was therefore appropriate. That there was no central organisation and that the word internet was actually a descriptive noun did not sink in quickly, and in many instances still hasn't (For an amusing example of this, watch the movie Disclosure, made in 1994. In this movie, Michael Douglas' character receives a series of anonymous tips by e-mail. He wants to know where they are coming from, and he therefore has his secretary contact "Internet" and find this out. The screenwriter presumably thought there was a company called "Internet" that ran the internet).

One question is whether we capitalised the word before the intenet came into common use. I was using the internet in the late 1980s, but I really cannot remember. I would ideally like to do a case sensitive search for "Internet" and "internet" in Usenet posts prior to 1993 in order to find out, but Google Groups will not allow this.

Given this misconception, the word internet became normally capitalised, and it remains this way. If Microsoft Word's spelling checker's autocorrection feature is switched on, it capitalises the word for you. This (and one or two other disagreements I have with the grammatical style it forces) is the reason why I usually have this autocorrection switched off.

This lack of understanding that there could be more than one "internet" ultimately led to the creation of the word "intranet", a word I dislike intensely. These things are private internets. The word intranet was coined as a consequence of ignorance as to what an internet was, and this is bad.

When I was a technology and telecommunications analyst at a large investment bank, I fought something of a losing battle over this point. I would submit research reports with internet spelled with a lower case i, and the editor who checked my reports before they were printed and sent out to clients would always change the lower case i to an upper case i. I understand his point (in this instance consistency is more important than my pedantry), but I was never quite sure whether he realised I was trying to make a point or whether I simply couldn't spell. (Actually he may have realised I was trying to make a point, because he certainly was aware that a am very careful about my choice of words, and that I get annoyed when editors remove subtle jokes from my writing). I never actually discussed the point with him: I just kept doing it. And he kept changing it.

1 comment:

The Daily English Show said...

Very interesting ... thank you. I've wondered about the capital i for internet for quite some time.

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