You’ve probably never forded a stream in a Ford that somebody lent you during Lent, but that probably hasn’t prevented you from using capitonyms — maybe without even realizing you were doing it.

A capitonym is a word that has more than one meaning, and maybe more than one pronunciation. The word “capitonym” is a portmanteau word that’s derived from “capital” and the suffix “nym,” which is from the Greek “onama,” meaning “name.”

Capitonyms are also homographs: words that are spelled the same but not necessarily pronounced the same and have different meanings —such as “bass.” They are also heteronyms: words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciations and meanings — such as “tear,” even though some purists insist that real capitonyms involve case-sensitive words whose case and pronunciation must change.

And, if all that’s not confusing enough (and it is), some people consider them homonyms; words that are spelled and pronounced the same but have different meanings — such as “bear.”

One especially fruitful area for capitonym hunters is in peoples’ names. Feminine first names that are capitonyms include: Barb, Carol, Crystal, Dawn, Fern, Iris, Patty, Penny, Rose and Violet.

While the months April, May, June are also popular female first names (or at least used to be), only “May” would be considered  a capitonym by some purists since “April” and “June” are always capitalized.

Some male-name capitonyms are: Bill, Bob, Clay, Don, Frank, Gene, Jack, Jay, John, Mark, Pat, and Ray, among others.

Last-name capitonyms are frequently related to colors, animals, or perhaps an ancestor’s occupation. Brown, White, Green, Black, Wolf, Fox, Parrot, Baker, Cook and Farmer are a few examples.

One problem with some capitonyms is the confusion they can cause when they’re used at the beginning of a sentence. Something like “Mobile homes are becoming very expensive” begs the question: “Are they mobile homes or are they homes in Mobile, Alabama?” It’s a matter of context.

People are nice in Nice, France, but do the Polish polish their silver very often? Do people in China have nice china? Is it really rainier on Mount Rainier?

As you’d expect, other languages also have capitonyms. For example, In German “Morgen” is the noun “morning,” while “morgen” means “tomorrow.”

Religion is one place to find capitonyms. To the person whose taste in furniture is very catholic, the instruction manual is her bible as she stares at the mass of pieces on her living room floor. To her, the founder of Ikea is a god. However, if we were talking about religion, several of the words in the preceding sentences would need to be capitalized.

Another good place to look for capitonyms is in the area of politics. Members of the Democratic Party support the democratic system, but are Conservative Members of Parliament really conservative? Members of the United Nations General Assembly will assemble this afternoon to debate the matter.

All of this capitonym stuff started me thinking again about the grammatically correct sentence: “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo,” which is often used as an example of lexical ambiguity. It also happens to be a good example of how a capital letter can differentiate a proper noun (the city of Buffalo) from common nouns and verbs. (A semantically equivalent form of the above sentence is, “Buffalo bison that other Buffalo bison bully also bully Buffalo bison.”)

If I’ve gone too far with this topic (which I probably have), my apologies; I never intended for this column to turn into a form of capital punishment.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: