Author Topic: proper nouns?  (Read 7353 times)

a non-amos

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proper nouns?
« on: February 26, 2007, 12:54:52 PM »
I agree that proper nouns (names, places, etc.) should be excluded from play.  There are so many unusual names (or unusual spellings of names) that most any combination of letters could be a name.

On the other hand, much of our technical vocabulary is derived from names or places.  Examples:

oort (as in the oort cloud)
petri (as in a petri dish)
Henry (unit of measure, inductance)

What is the general rule?  Capitalization?  As words migrate from being proper nouns into the realm of common usage, dictionaries frequently disagree on capitalization.

In the above list, the only capitalized word is the only one accepted by Chihuahua.  No, the dictionaries do not agree on its capitalization.  I capitalized it because that is what I learned in school, but this may have changed in the last few decades.

How do you determine when a word has become eligible?  Are either "petri" or "oort" eligible?


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Alan W

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Re: proper nouns?
« Reply #1 on: February 26, 2007, 06:26:02 PM »
The way the rule is currently stated is that words normally written with a capital letter are excluded. In practice, if somebody wanted a word to be permitted, I would probably agree if there was any dictionary that gave it in all lower-case letters, or evidence that it was sometimes written that way.

Judging words by whether they are written with a capital is not an ideal approach, but it is the way Scrabble rules normally judge the issue, and hence it is the criterion that has been used in compiling most of the English word lists in existence, including YAWL, which Chihuahua uses.

Alan Beale, who compiled another massive word list, ENABLE, has also compiled a list of over 9000 capitalised words that he believes are not proper names. He was inspired to do this by a Scrabble Players' Dcitionary that carelessly stated that "proper names" were not allowed. Beale says:

This is of course inaccurate, as not every capitalized word is a proper name (e.g., "Iraqi", "Napoleonic", "Pleistocene" or "Ritalin"), and not every proper name is capitalized (e.g., "pinyin", "cinquecento").

(This list, and Alan Beale's discussion of proper names, are included in the Enable Supplement at

One reason a word that is not a proper name may have an initial capital is that it was named after a person or place, and still retains the capital from the source word. This sometimes applies to breeds of dog: "labrador", "pekingese" (and even "chihuahua"!) are often written with a capital letter. However these words are also often written in lower case, and all three are in our word list.

The words you ask about, "oort", "petri" and "henry" are in a similar situation, often retaining the initial capital letters from the names of Messrs Oort, Petri and Henry. I haven't seen "Oort Cloud" written without a capital O, but "petri dish" is certainly written with a lower case P sometimes. (Doing an online search of the British National Corpus for the phrase extracted 22 examples of its use, 5 of which wrote "petri" with a lower case P.) And "henry" for the electrical unit is often written with a small "h".

However, I think the real problem for "oort" and "petri" is that neither of them seems to be a word in its own right. Is a petri dish ever called a "petri"? Do lab technicians say, "Pass me that petri, will you"? Is there a plural, "petris"? Not as far as I'm aware. So I would say the phrase "petri dish" is part of the English language, but "petri" by itself is not. Likewise, I don't see "Oort" used other than in the phrases "Oort Cloud" and "Oort constants".

But if you can convince me I'm being too harsh on these words, I'll gladly reconsider.
Alan Walker
Creator of Lexigame websites