or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, April 13, 2005


"Petri dish" or "petri dish"?

Eponyms are a special problem because there's simply no logic to whether they ought to be capitalized or not. The word is from the Greek: "epi-", "after", and "-nym", "name". An eponym is something named after someone, whether directly (a "curie" is a measure of radiation, named after Marie and Pierre Curie) or indirectly ("Rome" is thought to come from Romulus, alongside his twin Remus a founder of the city). Since the word comes from a proper noun, shouldn't it be capitalized?

The trouble is that English has an aversion to capitalizing anything that isn't immediately a proper noun. Marie Curie, yes; a curie as a measure, no. (A curie is defined as 37 gigabecquerels, and poor Antoine Becquerel doesn't get any respect, either.) But sometimes the capital letter sticks to the common noun as well, so we're left with a mishmash. We have a Granny Smith or a McIntosh apple, but a loganberry and a macadamia nut; the Heimlich manoeuvre, but pasteurization; Queen Anne's lace, but a gardenia; a Shirley Temple, but a napoleon and a sandwich; a Horatio Alger story, but a valentine; a Nehru jacket, but a raglan sweater.

There are some general rules. Something named after a place usually remains capitalized: a Tasmanian devil, a Roman nose. Ditto when we use both first and last names to describe something: a Mae West, a Benedict Arnold. (If Luisa Tetrazzini had managed to have her first name attached to the dish called chicken tetrazzini as well as her last name, it might still be capitalized.) Latinized common nouns in the worlds of botany and microbiology (the discoverer's name followed by "-ia") are never capitalized: listeria, salvia, poinsettia. Nor are the elements: einsteinium, rutherfordium. (But some other scientific terms, perversely, are: degrees Kelvin, for example.) Mostly, it all seems very catch-as-catch-can.

As for Dr. Petri, his invention's name is capitalized or not, as the speller sees fit. A quick Googling of the phrase suggests that it's fifty-fifty.


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