Episode 272: April 21, 2011
Passover started on Tuesday and Easter is on Sunday. Since this is a week when many readers will be celebrating religious holidays, it seems like a good time to answer questions about religious words.
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Do You Capitalize the Word "God"?
One of the most common questions people ask about religious words is whether to capitalize the word “god.” The name of any specific deity is capitalized just like any other name, so when “God” is used to refer to “the one God,” (in other words, in any monotheistic religion) it is capitalized.
For example, you’d capitalize “God” in this sentence:
Some Christians give thanks to God before every meal.
When referring to gods in general, however, or using the word "god" descriptively, keep it lowercase:
The Romans believed a god named Jupiter ruled the heavens.
The Greek gods were always causing trouble for humans.
The same rule holds true for Yahweh, Allah, Zeus, and the names of gods in other religions. They are capitalized.
Why Do Jewish People Write “G-d”?
An interesting side note about the names of gods is that it’s Jewish tradition to avoid writing the name of God because doing so creates a chance that the name could be treated disrespectfully. For this reason, it is common in Jewish documents to see the name written “G-d.”
That’s a simplistic explanation of Jewish religious philosophy, but at least now if you see “G-d,” you’ll have an inkling of an idea why it’s written that way. You can read more about the Jewish tradition here and here.
Do You Capitalize “Godly”?
Hillary M. from Las Vegas wanted to know if she should capitalize the word like “godly” and “godsend.”
"Godly" and other words that start with "god" are almost always lowercase. Occasionally, religious publications choose to capitalize words that start with "god," but a wide variety of style guides I found that address the issue in some way (1, 2, 3, 4) recommend using lowercase for words such as "godless," "godliness," "godly," and “godsend.”
You were sent by God.
You are a godsend.
“Godmother” and “godfather” are also kept lowercase.
Should You Capitalize "He" When it Refers to God?
Stacey from Boise, Idaho, wanted to know whether she should capitalize the pronouns “he,” “his,” and “him” when they refer to God.
I have certainly heard the rule that pronouns referring to a deity should be capitalized, but the style guides I checked (including some with a religious bent) recommend using lowercase and note that some versions of the Bible (including the King James Version and the New International Version) use lowercase pronouns to refer to God (3, 4, 5, 6, 7). Ultimately, it's a style choice, but the most common style seems to be to keep them lowercase.
Do You Capitalize the Words “Atheist” and “Agnostic”?
Jessica from Las Vegas, Nevada, asked whether she should capitalize the word "atheist."
The names of religions and their followers are capitalized. So you capitalize the words “Christianity” and “Christians,” “Buddhism” and “Buddhists,” “Hinduism” and “Hindus,” and so on. The followers of Islam are called Muslims, and again, both words are capitalized.
On the other hand, words that describe people who don’t follow a religion, such as "atheist" or "agnostic," are not capitalized. They aren’t names as much as they are descriptions of a philosophy.
Do You Capitalize the Word “Bible”?
The names of religious books such as the Bible, Talmud, and Koran are also capitalized, unless they’re being used generically. For example, when you’re referring to the Christian Bible, “bible” is capitalized; but if you’re calling something your grammar bible, then you’re using “bible” generically, and it should be lowercase.
“Koran” or “Quran”?
The names of religious books brings up another interesting question: Why is “Koran” spelled different ways? Translating Arab words to English is difficult because the languages use different alphabets and there are no set rules to correlate the Arabic letters to the Latin letters we use in English.
When we see Arabic words written in English, they’re actually not a translation, but a transliteration--a representation of how the Arabic words would sound if they were written in the Latin alphabet. So you will see “Koran” spelled a few different ways in English publications including “K-o-r-a-n,” “Q-u-r-a-n,” and “Q-u-r-’-a-n.” There isn’t a right or wrong way; it’s a style choice (8). It’s the same reason you see Muammar Gadaffi’s name spelled a bunch of different ways (Gadaffi, Kadafi, Qaddafi, etc.) (9).
Translating from Hebrew has the same problems, which is why there are many acceptable spellings for “Hanukkah.”
What's the Proper Way to Use "Gee Whiz"?
Jimmy asked how to properly use "gee whiz," which turns out to be a question about religious words because according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "gee whiz" probably comes from “geewhillikins,” which is a replacement word for the exclamation “Jerusalem!” or a euphemism for "Jesus!" It has come to mean "exciting" or "surprising" when it's used as an adjective:
Gee whiz, Grammar Girl, who knew there was so much to say about this topic?
The most common spelling today is "gee whiz," but since it is slang, there is some disagreement over the spelling, and some dictionaries also show it as "gee whizz." It’s a relatively recent word, arising in America in the late 1800s. Back then it was also spelled "gee wiz" and "geewhitz," which is closer to “geewhillikins.”
It only takes a hyphen when it's used as an adjective:
I brought out the gee-whiz dictionaries for that question.
Words like “gee whiz” aren’t new. “Zounds” is a cleaned up way of saying “God’s wounds” that people started using way back in the 1500s (10), and in the 1600s people started saying “gadzooks” which Merriam-Webster says could be a euphemism for “God’s hooks” referring to the nails on the cross (11).
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