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This is a question on capitalization. Proper nouns are capitalized. But how can I tell which parts of a term constitute a proper noun?

Take, for example, the nickname for traveler's diarrhea (sorry, the first thing that came to my mind). I've seen it written as Montezuma's Revenge (proper noun), as well as Montezuma's revenge (common noun). Which is correct?

What about a journalist referring to a specific set of letters sent by prisoners -- would he call them the Guantanamo Letters or the Guantanamo letters? Or is it simply a matter of context?

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I feel it's only right to link to an appropriate and related question: travel.stackexchange.com/questions/2589/… ;) –  Mark Mayo Nov 22 '11 at 1:47
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3 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Proper nouns should name specific people, places or things - "specific" being the key word here. In some cases specificity is immediately apparent, e.g. in the term "Singapore Airlines" (after all, there is only one airline with that name!).

In other cases, there is a grey area and I would say that fame/notoriety also plays a role in determining specificity. To use your example, one would refer to the Guantanamo letters if they don't contain any content that is particularly newsworthy. If, on the other hand, these letters happen to disclose some salient information that could result in a political scandal, then these letters would quickly garner attention and become intimately linked to this political scandal in the minds of people. Such a link would imbue the letters with a specific quality that would warrant the use of a proper noun, i.e. the Guantanamo Letters.

Thus, some common nouns can become proper nouns over time as they gain specificity in the minds of people. This can be a very organic process that can leave plenty of room for interpretation as to whether something should be considered a proper noun or not.

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This answer becomes becomes even more obviously correct when you contrast "American Airlines" (the world's fourth largest airline, known to IATA and others as "AA") with "American airlines" (all US flag carriers, including AA). –  Malvolio Nov 21 '11 at 23:31
    
Maybe it can also help if you think of "specific" as "unique" as in "A proper noun or proper name is a noun representing a unique entity". –  Unreason Nov 22 '11 at 9:10
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I think that as soon as Montenzuna's revenge becomes1 unique, and not just some revenge, possibly one of many, that you are grammatically allowed to name it and call it Montezuna's Revenge.

EDIT:
This is reason enough to justify the personal use, for the name to be generally known and accepted this symbol must be shared between a group of people.


1 It can be considered unique as soon as you see something unique in it.

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I believe that only the names should be capitalized. After all, when you give a name to a disease and it's a common noun you don't capitalize it, unless its formal name contains a name, eg tuberculosis is also referred to as Koch's disease. The only part which is capitalized is the name, not the word disease.

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Your example is interesting. However, 1) Koch's disease is specific enough already and capitalizing the 2nd term does not help emphasize the uniqueness, which is necessary in case of "American airlines" vs "American airlines" and 2) you are naming a class of things i.e. you are creating a new common name (i.e. noun) in this case, not a name for specific unique entity. In short, yes, only names should be capitalized, but you can give a proper name to anything, see proper name –  Unreason Nov 22 '11 at 9:10
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