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What words change meaning when the first letter is capitalised? The only word with this property that comes to mind is polish.

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Looks like there's a name for these types of words. Capitonym, check out the wikipedia article: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capitonym –  whoabackoff Jul 12 '11 at 22:06
    
I thought what made it different was not that the meaning changed, but that the pronounciation changed: Polish and polish are pronounced differently. –  thursdaysgeek Jul 12 '11 at 22:08
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closed as not constructive by JSBձոգչ, Rhodri, KitFox, Jasper Loy, Dori Jul 14 '11 at 3:56

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1 Answer

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I can't think of any other word that changes its meaning so completely. Most often, a word changes because a noun becomes a proper noun, usually either a brand or a place where something commonly known originated. The Polish/polish pair is different; the proper noun (adjective actually) has nothing to do with the common noun.

For instance:

  • "china", uncapitalized, is a plate. "China", capitalized, is a country.
  • "comet" is an astronomical object. "Comet" is a cleaning powder.
  • "burgundy" is a color, and a wine of that color. "Burgundy" is the French region that produces the wine.
  • Similarly, "cheddar" is a cheese, and "Cheddar" is an English city where the cheese became known.
  • A "jack" lifts cars up, but if a "Jack" can do that I wouldn't want to fight him.
  • "coke" is most properly the term for a fuel product made from destructive distillation of coal via high heat. "Coke" is the well-known synonym for Coca-Cola, which gets its name from the original (but LONG since discontinued) use of coca leaf extracts (i.e. cocaine) in the drink.
  • Here's a Polish/polish one: turkey's the bird, while Turkey's the country. I originally thought they had nothing to do with each other, but it seems that the bird was introduced to Europe through the country.
  • Most other nationalities were careful enough to encourage different Latin spellings of their names versus the common nouns that are homonymous, but a listener still has to check for context to know whether a person is speaking of Finns, Czechs and Kurds, and not fins, checks and curds.

EDIT: For posterity, the term for these words is "Capitonym"; more information and a lot more examples are here at Annie's Annex.

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Cheddar is a village rather than a city :) –  psmears Jul 13 '11 at 15:31
    
Actually "turkey" the fowl is related to "Turkey" the country: The name originated because these creatures were imported to Europe via Turkey. –  Jay Oct 12 '11 at 18:06
    
I did not know that; editing. –  KeithS Oct 12 '11 at 18:57
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