Is it "southern California" or "Southern California?"

The word "southern" is not part of the official name of California or any city or county, so I never capitalize it. It only loosely defines a region of California and its border is not officially defined either. However, I was recently advised by someone who I consider to be educated to capitalize "southern" in this context. Did I miss the memo on this issue? Is "Southern California" considered a proper noun?

  • This seems a difficult case; as this discussion at EnglishForums points out, opinion is divided. APS recommends the capitalisation, but the majority opinion seems to be the opposite, which is what one might expect. Dec 27 '17 at 22:10
  • Please include the research you’ve done. Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic, as are those lacking any signs of reasonable research. Dec 27 '17 at 22:13
  • If it's a name, it's a proper noun. Whether it's an "official" name or not and how well the thing is defined have no bearing whatsoever. The question as to whether something should be considered a name or not is one of style, and as such you should adhere to the discipline of your editor, publication, or organization, or in the absence of a house style, you should adopt a suitable style manual and be consistent in its application.
    – choster
    Dec 27 '17 at 22:40
  • Please note that my close-vote reason was 'lack of reasonable signs of research'; I believe that there are differences between the 'northern Europe' example and this one. Dec 27 '17 at 22:40
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    Related, but not duplicates (in my opinion): Meaning of “ ‘Western’ world” and alternative terms, Specifying geography with cardinal directions, The Southern US, or the southern US?. The OP's premise here is that Southern California isn't an official name, and so should not be initial-capped.
    – Sven Yargs
    Dec 27 '17 at 22:43

The Chicago Manual of Style, sixteenth edition (2010) has a useful and detailed discussion of this issue. Here is part of that discussion:

8.46 Regions of the world and national regions. Terms that denote regions of the world or of a particular country are often capitalized, as are a few of the adjectives and nouns derived from such terms. The following examples illustrate not only the principles sketched in [an earlier section of CMOS] but also variations based on context and usage. ... Note that exceptions based on specific regional, political, or historical contexts are inevitable and that an author's strong preference should usually be respected.

[Relevant examples:] the South, southern, a southerner (of a country); the South, Southern, a Southerner (in American Civil War contexts); the Deep South; Southern California; the South of France (region); Southeast Asia; South Africa; South African (referring to the Republic of South Africa); southern Africa (referring to the southern part of the continent); south; southern; southward; to the south (directions)

CMOS recognizes that common usage and context determine conventional approaches to capitalization in connection with the treatment of certain terms related to regions. By prevailing usage, roughly the most southerly one-third or two-fifths of California is referred to as Southern California, in initial caps. There may be disagreement about where the border of Southern California begins, just as there was and is about the border of the Wild West, but the fact that the Los Angeles metropolitan area, Orange County, and San Diego are all located in Southern California is beyond debate.

At 8.47 ("Popular place names or epithets"), CMOS notes that certain other regions and epithets receive initial caps as well. For example, Silicon Valley isn't a proprietary name or legally defined area, but it receives initial caps anyway. And Wisconsin is known as the Badger State (not "the badger state") even though its official name is Wisconsin.

So the upshot of my answer is that you didn't miss the memo (or perhaps I should say The Memo) on this issue, but at the same time you didn't notice a larger phenomenon in accordance with which initial-capping Southern California is by no means a unique, inexplicable, or indefensible treatment of a regional name.

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    As definitive as it gets. As an aside, when we toured through the San Francisco Peninsula earlier this year, our guide told us that the natives generally didn't like the name 'Silicon Valley'. Dec 27 '17 at 22:45
  • @SvenYargs This is a very useful answer; I'm processing it. In your first paragraph after the caption you make a good comparison between Wild West and Southern California, but I'm still troubled by a couple of issues. Clearly, LA, OC, and SD are part of Southern California, but there are a lot of other places that are located in southern California that are not located in Southern California, such as Palm Springs, Salton Sea, Joshua Tree, Blythe, etc. The other concern I have is that southern is a geographical term, that I feel shouldn't be usurped in this way.
    – Devil07
    Dec 29 '17 at 21:40
  • @Devil07, the geographical adjective "southern" is not usurped -- it just means something different. "southern California" is not the same as "Southern California". I tried to describe the difference in my answer below. It might be amusing to look for instances of "southern Southern California" or "northern Southern California".
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 30 '17 at 1:17

If you think southern California has properties which one ordinarily associates with countries or states, or at least you want to convey that this is so, then you should use the capitalization ordinarily used for names of countries or states. Otherwise, not. (I have no authority for this opinion, other than my intuition as an English speaker.)

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    As Sven Yargs' answer shows, there is a strong descriptivist argument involved. Dec 27 '17 at 23:21
  • @EdwinAshworth I didn't notice any argument in his answer at all.
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 28 '17 at 1:21
  • 'CMOS recognizes that common usage and context determine conventional approaches to capitalization in connection with the treatment of certain terms related to regions.' I assume CMOS have done reasonable research before arguing against a rigid insistence on 'the principles sketched in [an earlier section of CMOS]' and have thought carefully before arguing against ignoring authors' strong preferences. Dec 28 '17 at 9:04
  • I still don't see any "descriptivist argument", much less a strong one. I guess you're saying that it's always okay to break any principle if you really want to, because CMOS says so. Is that an argument?
    – Greg Lee
    Dec 28 '17 at 18:44
  • CMOS looks at what a large relevant tranche of people do; this ultimately defines what is acceptable. 'I have no authority for this opinion, other than my intuition as an English speaker.' seems less related to the usual descriptivist process, more opinion-based. Less democratic. Dec 28 '17 at 19:09

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