February 6, 2014

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Capitalizing common words derived from proper nouns—French fries or french fries?

Posted in capitalizing, French fries/french fries at 6:23 am by dlseltzer

A reader writes:

I have a question. My co-worker and I have had a discussion over whether the phrase should be “French fries” or “french fries.” (Microsoft Word wants to capitalize the letter.)  When I tried to find an answer through Google, I basically found “to each his own.” However, this will be in a publication so I would like a more definitive answer.  Thanks!

I did mention that I hated Microsoft Word, didn’t I? The first thing I did, after pasting the email into this document, was to right click (or control click) the word, french, with its red squiggly lines, and select ‘add,’ so I would never again be bothered by Word’s insistence that french should be capitalized. Whew. I feel better now.

I wanted to fix that because, as you might suspect, there is no need to capitalize the F in french fries. All of the major style manuals (including AMA) agree that once a word or phrase with a proper noun becomes common, the capital letters are dropped in favor of lowercase letters. Most of the examples I found referred to foods:

 e.g., baked alaska, brussels sprouts, melba toast, russian dressing, french bread.

 But there are other examples as well:

 e.g., roman numeral, petri dish, italic type, french doors, dutch oven.

 [NOTE: Microsoft wanted to capitalize the first word in most of the these examples; it was okay with roman numeral, petri dish, and italic type.]

 The only time I would capitalize the proper noun is if it provides information about the word. For instance, I would talk about swiss cheese if I were talking about generic swiss cheese which could be from anywhere, but I would talk about Swiss Gruyere if I wanted you to know that the cheese actually was imported from Switzerland.

And french fries really have little to do with France. If using the capital F in french provided more meaning, it would be fine to capitalize it, but it doesn’t, so we don’t.

Some think the word, french, refers to the form of cutting the vegetable that is known as “frenching,” but that doesn’t work either since the concept of  “frenching’ came along long after french fries were first eaten.

The modern trend is to use lowercase words whenever possible, so I would go ahead and do that, and continue to correct Microsoft Word when it is wrong. And someday, we may end up with a spell-checker that actually works!

2 Comments »

  1. Chris said,

    However, I would use capitals in “Gram stain” and “Southern blot”, which are named after the inventors.

  2. This is a really interesting question. I’ve looked up “french fries” and “swiss cheese” in multiple dictionaries but focussed on Merriam-Webster’s and Oxford dictionaries. Oxford dictionary always capitalize: French fries, Swiss cheese. In Merriam-Webster though, you can find “french fries”, but “Swiss cheese”. However, if you look up “french”, it lists “french” when used as a verb, but “French” – capitalized – when used as an adjective or a noun. If we look up “french door” or “french window”, we find them capitalized everywhere.
    Incidentally, there is an interesting theory about fries being or not being French on wikipedia… and why they are called “French fries”.


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