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When Conservative is spelled with a capital C it usually refers to the Conservative and Unionist Party of Great Britain. Spelled with a small c, it becomes the adjective conservative meaning *averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values. People, in Britain at any rate will sometimes describe themselves as 'conservative with a small c'.

Similarly Catholic, spelled with a capital C usually refers to the Roman Catholic church, and/or its members. But spelled with a small c, it means: a wide variety of things; all embracing. So I may describe my taste in food as catholic meaning I am willing to try anything.

But whilst I have heard plenty of people describe their tastes as 'catholic', I have never heard anyone use the expression catholic with a small c.

Would it generally be understood and accepted into mainstream conversation if someone did. If not, what is the term, meaning 'all embracing', (apart, of course from 'all embracing').

  • 3
    Plenty of people, no less? I wonder if that’s conditioned by geography, or perhaps age. I have heard it, but quite rarely. As a tangential tidbit, some other Germanic languages (certain Danish and Norwegian, and I believe at least Swedish too) use Catholic to mean ‘woozy, confused, befuddled’, and Greek Catholic (as in the Eastern Orthodox Church) to mean ‘completely and utterly indifferent’. Both quite different meanings, but also both attributable to the historical meaning of catholic, which is ‘over everything’ or ‘concerning it all’, vel sim. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 18 '14 at 18:54
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    well, catholic with a small C is used in one of the prayers in the catholic mass each week. So Catholics might know what you are talking about. – Oldcat Nov 18 '14 at 18:59
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    Now that I’ve happened to come across the question that sparked this one, I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks it’s rather an esoteric word. That does leave the question of where the word still enjoys some remaining vigour, though. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 18 '14 at 19:09
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After a service, I asked a priest about the creed which reads, "one holy, catholic church" and said I thought I was attending an Anglican church.

He replied, "'Catholic' with a small c."

That was 20 years ago, so it would be understood in religious settings at the very least.

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    It is nice to know there are people for whom the English language exists beyond their own narrow lexicons. Someone on one of these pages yesterday pointed out catholic as 'obsolete' (other than in Roman Catholic). For those who declare words 'obsolete', presumably the works of Shakespeare, indeed anything published prior to about 1950 is also 'obsolete'. – WS2 Nov 19 '14 at 9:24
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    @WS2 It bothers me that there are words considered obsolete that are of perfectly good use and without alternatives. Consider how often we say "the day after tomorrow" and "the day before yesterday", yet the supposedly-obsolete words "overmorrow" and "ereyesterday" mean precisely those, respectively. – ColinT Nov 19 '14 at 11:17
  • @Ws2 I was the one who declared catholic as a synonym for the secular comprehensive obsolete, and nothing in these answers has led me to change that opinion. In fact, to the contrary, it has reinforced my belief no one in the modern world uses it this way. The most upvoted answer agrees directly that the word is obsolete and only used in the sense of a religion which recognizes the pope, and this answer you accepted says he heard it once, 20 years ago, spoken by a priest, at which time he thought he priest had meant Catholic, big C. [cont'd] – Dan Bron Nov 19 '14 at 13:21
  • [cont'd] Which means even a religious man, 20 years ago had been conditioned to understand the word in the Roman Catholic sense. Seems to me "catholic, small c" is used only by Anglicans as an apologia: "We're Catholic, but not Catholic-Catholic". The only other answer agrees with that sentiment and declares the only non-religious context he's seen the word in is a humanitarian one, and can't see his way to agreeing with your usage of "catholic tastes". In other words, we are not declaring "catholic, small c", obsolete, we are observing it so. It's dead and gone. I'm sorry for your loss. – Dan Bron Nov 19 '14 at 13:23
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    @DanBron And since I know someone who uses the word catholic in that way, you had better let me know what the penalty is for doing so, so I can warn him. Is it something like six months for a first offence, of use of an obsolete word? – WS2 Oct 26 '16 at 17:06
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I don't think it would be universally understood, chiefly because most English speakers don't realize there is a meaning to "catholic" other than "the Christian church that recognizes the Pope in Rome as its spiritual head".

That wouldn't make it a useless thing to say though. For instance my (non Catholic) church occasionally has us recite the Apostle's Creed, which contains the line:

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, ...

This can cause a lot of confusion. I had a visiting Catholic friend ask me about it, and I've even seen some hymnals take the step of adding the unpronounced parenthetical "(universal)" after the word "catholic".

If you are looking for a good replacement word, I'd go with those protestant churches and use "universal".

3

The collocation "catholic tastes" is certainly not obsolete. A quick look at books.google.com/ngram for recent uses (since 1982) of "catholic tastes" provides plenty of examples ranging from things like Shostakovich's "catholic taste in music “from Bach to Offenbach,” in gypsy music, street songs, and the music hall, were well established. Jazzderived rhythms, textures, and instrumental color had been assimilated into much of his music" to the Northern Hemisphere Minke whale's "catholic tastes" as opposed to its cousins in the Southern Hemisphere: "in the Northern Hemisphere, it has more catholic tastes and much fish is eaten."

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I'd understand it right away (but I cannot claim to be representative of what people would "generally" understand).

As an alternative,

  • I eat anything
  • I'll try anything [once]!
  • I'm omnivorous
  • I'm easy to please
  • I'd like what you're having
  • I'm a flexitarian <-- a new favourite

It wouldn't occur to me to describe a taste in food as "catholic", though:

  • Because it has a religious tone, which because of Matthew 15:11 doesn't sound appropriate to me
  • Because I think of it as "accepting" (of other people) ... I accept them, I'm not going to eat them!

https://www.google.com/search?q=catholic+etymology suggests that a good synonym of "catholic" is "universal".

  • I'm atypical because my Dad was a Professor of Classics and a Catholic. – ChrisW Nov 18 '14 at 18:52
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My feeling is that this is an example of a word becoming obsolete because of the potential for confusion with other usages, but continues to be used in certain phrases where there's no danger of confusion. Certainly in educated British usage, it's not unusual to talk of having catholic tastes - but it's clear that one is not talking about a type of religious cannibalism! But there's other words that can be used for "not fussy" in other contexts, so there's no need to use "catholic" and then distinguish it as "small-C".

The two meanings of C/conservative are distinct but hard to substitute in many contexts, hence the need to distinguish them. But in general "small-C" conservative is used far less in the UK than in the US and synonyms found for it, in the same way that synonyms are found for small-C "catholic".

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