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The popular consensus around the web (i.e., Wikipedia) seems to be that "upper case" and "lower case" originate from typesetting convention of upper and lower drawers for letters, possibly preceded by the Latin terminology of majuscule and minuscule.

However, none of these references seem to be backed up properly, and frankly, I find the explanation tickling my urban legend senses - my suspicion is that this is an incomplete or even false etymology, but I can't find anything better.

Is there a more authoritative source that attests to whether or not this is a true etymology?

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OED confirms that the capitals were in the printer's upper case, and the small letters in their lower case. Alas, it is subscription only. –  Matt Эллен May 3 '12 at 20:31
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Ah! I see. This might suffice, then. OED concurs, under the word case (meaning 9), but you'll just have to take our word for it. –  J.R. May 3 '12 at 20:42
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I can vouch from personal experience from the times of hand compositing off wooden drawers and before computers became mainstream. (No I am no spirit from the lo..ng past! -- the time was just the '60s). –  Kris May 3 '12 at 20:47
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Well, Ben, there you have it: Etymonline, OED, and Kris. Is that authoritative enough for you? :^) –  J.R. May 3 '12 at 20:56
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So can I, @Kris. In fact I still have one of my father's California cases downstairs. –  Colin Fine May 3 '12 at 23:47
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1 Answer

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The full OED explanation is that in printing a case is ‘The receptacle or frame in which the compositor has his types, divided into compartments for the various letters, figures, and spaces. In ordinary printing the compositor has two such cases before him on a slanting stand, the upper case containing the capitals, etc., the lower the small letters, ordinary spaces, etc.’

This is supported by four citations, the earliest dating from 1588.

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There is new terminology now in these heady Unicode days. Titlecase is by analogy with the other two, but there was never a special case for storing such things in a compositor’s set. Special sorts like a Th would go with the other ligatures in faces that supported such; there was no title case. –  tchrist May 3 '12 at 21:55
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