English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I have two questions on the following sentence:

Have you ever been in a foreign country for half year without eating western food?

Q1: Do I need to capitalize Western ?

Q2: Assume the writer is Asian, and he used "western food".

Could you understand the phrase "western food" in the first place? If not, how would a native speaker write it?

share|improve this question
I think this is General Reference. Just Google, for example, "western values" to see that it's invariably capitalised in such usages. – FumbleFingers Jan 28 '13 at 22:01
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Western capitalised refers to a particular part of the world—the West/The Western world/the Occident which isn't defined to unanimous satisfaction, but more or less means Europe and those former European colonies with a majority European population—or else the western part of a particular area that can be deduced from context. Without capitals, western just means it relates to the direction west generally.

Therefore capitalised it would mean food from that place.

Capitalised and coming after a discussion about how Western Europe differed from Eastern Europe in terms of cuisine, we'd re-adjust our contextual assumptions, and assume it meant Western European.

Not capitalised, it could be taken to mean "food from somewhere vaguely west of here", but that really, unless context gave someone a good reason to assume it did mean exactly that, it'd be taken to mean the same as Western.

share|improve this answer
I have a packet of ramen noodles sitting on my shelf labelled “Oriental flavor”. Seems equivalent. – tchrist Jan 29 '13 at 0:48
@tchrist Yes, while I wouldn't expect them to taste of pølser og brod if they had a lower-case "oriental" just because Denmark is east of me, that would be because I'd assume they meant the East rather than the east. – Jon Hanna Jan 29 '13 at 0:56
Note that in North America, you might have a western outfit, western music, or even a film called a western. I have a feeling these are never capitalized. They of course refer to the Old West of pioneer days on this continent. – tchrist Jan 29 '13 at 1:19
@tchrist Merriam-Webster lists it as "often capitalized", and I could find some capitalised cases quickly enough. I suspect this is a matter of words losing their connection to their roots - once it coincided with what people using the word would understand as "The West" (in the days of Samuel Colt's self-serving publishing) or as "The Old West", but it's both less moored to that, and also has currency places where "The West" does not mean "those US states and territories that were westernmost in the 19th Century). As such, it, like many other words born from a proper noun, lost its capital. – Jon Hanna Jan 29 '13 at 1:43

Both 'Western/Eastern' in the sense of the world/food are like titles, even if they didn't start out that way, so a capital letter would make more sense. The reader would understand it better, because with a lower case letter, they might think it's food from the western part of the state/country, etc.

share|improve this answer

In this case, No, you do not capitalize “western”: the “west” referred to here is not a specific place or region named “West”, just vaguely “the cultures which derive from Europe”. It’s not even “the countries west of the East” - consider Australia.The “West” as the region into which the U.S. was manifestly destined to expand and the “Western States” when newsanchors are talking voting blocs are specific and different.

You only capitalize “West” and “Western” in the non-oriental sense if you're going to say something IMPORTANT about Western Civilization or The Decline of the West.

And “western food” is perfectly understandable. I’m not sure I could define it; but it’s what I eat every day, and it definitely more like what people from Poland and Argentina and New Zealand eat than it is like what people from China and India and Nigeria eat, which I only get as an occasional treat.

Well, it appears that I have demonstrated my provincialism, and I must bow to my more cosmopolitan colleagues. I retract the answer. I may delete it in due course (if the community does not take that sad chore off my hands), or I may leave it to memorialize my error.

But me, I’m unregenerate. I am embedded in western history, I read western literature, I listen to western music. Western history is the Chisolm Trail, Western literature is Zane Grey, and Western music is “Tumbling Along With the Tumbling Tumbleweeds”.

share|improve this answer
We capitalise based on importance? I don't know of dictionaries that support that; though they don't give a satisfactory account of just where the West is, they seem to agree that said vaguely defined place is either capitalised or usually capitalised. – Jon Hanna Jan 28 '13 at 22:05
@JonHanna We capitalize based on whether it's a name. Capitalizing The West is an inflation. – StoneyB Jan 28 '13 at 22:18
Lowercase western in that sense is like the (much rarer) term occidental, which contrasts with (equally lowercase) oriental. – John Lawler Jan 28 '13 at 22:41
And to label a given geographic area, even if not well defined, then we have a name. The West is such an area ad has Western food. The west excludes England for me (to the east of me), and excludes all of Europe and the Eastern United States to you. Indeed, to the US perspective, Japan is in the East but in the west. – Jon Hanna Jan 28 '13 at 23:01
@JonHanna A chronological analogy: you would certainly write of Restoration drama, probably of Renaissance drama; but Mediaeval drama? or Ancient drama? – StoneyB Jan 28 '13 at 23:37

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.