Adjectives derived from proper nouns are known as proper adjectives, and are capitalized:

A piece of writing could be Shakespearean, not shakespearean. A person may be Canadian, not canadian.

Even Chrome's spellchecker sees these as correct and incorrect.

However, quixotic is written in lower case, despite coming from the name of the character Don Quixote. Similarly, draconian laws are named for Draco, a particularly brutal senator from ancient Athens.

Does anyone know the reasoning behind some proper adjectives not being capitalized in common usage?

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    Because English! – Hot Licks Feb 20 at 20:09
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    I had no idea that quixotic came from Don Quixote, probably due to people pronouncing it very differently. "Quick sotic" vs "qijote". – Viktor Mellgren Feb 21 at 9:28
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    @ViktorMellgren English-speaking people may say 'Don Quijote' nowadays, but the book was translated into English a long time ago when most people had less exposure to foreign languages, and the name was traditionally pronounced 'Quicksote'. – Kate Bunting Feb 21 at 9:48
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    In Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2, our hero says, I would have such a fellow whipped for o'erdoing Termagant; it out-herods Herod.., thus not capitalising a noun-derived verb when the noun from which it is derived is standing right next to it! – Oscar Bravo Feb 22 at 7:15

In a comment posted years ago to the question Why is "biblical" the only proper adjective to not use upper case? I listed some other exceptions to the general rule that the first letter of an adjective derived from a proper name is normally capitalized. Only the letters q, w, x, and y did not yield an example (for some reason, I failed to notice quixotic):

arabesque, byzantine, caesarean, draconian, epicurean, faradic, galvanic, herculean, italic, jesuitical, kabbalistic, lilliputian, mercurial, nazi, oedipal, pyrrhic, rubenesque, spartan, terpsichorean, utopian, voltaic, and zephyrous

Why do these exceptions occur? The not-very-satisfactory answer seems to be that common usage determines whether an adjective based on a proper name is initial-capped or lowercased. Dictionaries provide their spelling preferences based on what amount to the found objects of preponderant real-world usage in each case; and thenceforth, real-world usage (to the extent that it is influenced by people who look things up in dictionaries) tends to reflect the dictionary treatment. The very circularity of the process makes it extremely difficult to determine where and when the critical decision regarding initial cap versus all lowercase got made.

I don't see how else to explain why Oedipal is usually initial-capped when it refers to the mythical character Oedipus (as in "Oedipal resistance to fate") but usually lowercased when it refers to Freud's Oedipus complex (as in "oedipal feelings"), although the complex is explicitly named after Oedipus.

Bryan Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, second edition (2003) concludes that trying to explain exceptions to the normal rules about what gets capitalized and what doesn't is a fool's game:

There is simply no way to reason out why Stone Age is capitalized but space age is usually not, why October is capitalized but autumn is not, why in scientific names the genus is capitalized but the species is not—even when the species name is derived from a proper name {Rhinolophus philippinensis}.

Ultimately, capitalization conventions rest on strong general tendencies tempered by exceptions that are neither consistent nor explicable.

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    Oddly, I can recall, in my school days, being instructed that "Autumn" is capitalized, though "fall", "winter", "spring", and "summer" are not. – Hot Licks Feb 20 at 23:22
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    @HotLicks I never heard that one. Autumn comes from a common noun in Latin, and was first used by Chaucer in his Boece (with the explanation, “that is, the end of somer.”) I can’t think of any basis for such a rule either in etymology or historical usage or a desire to be more sensitive to, I don’t know, deciduous trees. I guess it’s one of those completely arbitrary rules somebody made up to be able to call everybody else wrong. – Davislor Feb 21 at 4:52
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    @Davislor: You'd think that Watt ought to be at least as adjective-friendly as Faraday, Galvani, or Volta, but historically (at least) that bulb won't glow, despite our wattliest efforts. – Sven Yargs Feb 21 at 4:57
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    It is strange that no one capitalizes laconic, though, since everyone who knows what it means has heard “If.” And I sometimes wonder if there are people self-aware enough to make the distinction, “Oh, I was calling him a genocidal, authoritarian warmonger in general, not a literal member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.” – Davislor Feb 21 at 5:21
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    @Davislor: Consider me a counterexample :). I've heard laconic used enough to know what it means without ever learning the history of the word. – Justin Feb 21 at 15:26

As you correctly say, technically words associated with a proper noun should be capitalized.

However as time and usage goes on, these words tend to become words in their own right, not associated any more with the person they are named after.

So 'Shakespearean' means 'associated with or like Shakespeare'. It has no meaning apart from the association with the person.

On the other hand 'quixotic' is defined as "foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals. especially : marked by rash lofty romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous action". The definition makes no reference to Quixote, and people can (and do) use the word without knowing who Don Quixote is. This is even more true with 'draconian', which I had no idea was related to a person. Over time the adjective morphs from directly referring to the person etc, to indicating characteristics that were once associated with that person but are now considered independently.

It's likely that this morph happens over time, with some people starting to use lowercase while others keep the initial cap. Something similar happens with genericised trademarks, where words like google, hoover, trampoline and band aid lose their capitalization over time.

So the answer is that the word loses its initial cap when it stops being associated with the person (or thing) it was originally associated with.

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    +1 for confirming that I’m not the only one who had no idea draconian was related to a person – I just thought it was a direct reference to ‘dragon-like’! – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 20 at 18:34
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    William Blake wrote 'dark Satanic mills' in 'Jerusalem', in 1804, but by 2012 the word 'satanic' was sufficiently disconnected from the evil one for the Guardian to lowercase it when discussing the poem. – Michael Harvey Feb 20 at 18:39
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    A minor point is that "quixotic" is not given a Spanish pronunciation. – Hot Licks Feb 20 at 20:11
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    I completely agree with the answer to the question Davo linked to, which says essentially the same as mine here. 'balkanization' (meaning fragmentation) is no longer associated with the Balkans, although Americanization definitely refers to America. – DJClayworth Feb 20 at 21:49
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    @Juhasz I suspect that this is the best explanation for the trend, but given that its human language and not, perhaps, (classical) physics, the trend is weak and full of confounding factors and sub-trends – mbrig Feb 21 at 16:40

Salads can tell us something:

Even though these are very common salads, and likely to be served in a variety of ways, their names are usually capitalized.

BTW, I’m using the Wikipedia for consistency, but if you search for them on the internet, the recipe websites tend to follow the same usage.

On the other hand, the porterhouse steak, which the OED attributes to the Porter House eatery in early nineteenth century New York, has lost its capital letter. My theory is that contention over the origin (and differences over what a porterhouse actually is) must have played a role in this.

But I have no larger theory to present, especially since with sauces like Hollandaise and Bearnaise, the English have capitalized what were originally lower case French adjectives, hollandaise and bearnaise.

  • Definitely an interesting addition to the conversation, especially the latter with regard to the sauces. Obviously in the end common usage trumps anything related to grammar or syntax when it comes to English, so it's not surprising, necessarily, that these changes occur. It is surprising how seemingly random they can be. – Jesse Williams Feb 21 at 15:12
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    Consider this: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayonnaise. From what I can see in everyday life, mayonnaise doesn’t rate a capital M. The opinion of Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière is interesting – Global Charm Feb 23 at 5:37
  • that's interesting. But with the etymology itself unclear, it's certainly not proper. – Jesse Williams Feb 24 at 5:11

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