Episode 275: May 12, 2011
A listener named Pete was reading his copy of my book The Grammar Devotional and came across my entry about camel case, the practice of squishing two or more words together, but keeping the first letter of the second or third words capitalized so that the word looks like a camel with a hump in the middle. I gave as examples “MySpace” and the band name OutKast. In general, I don't like camel case. I talked about the history, which is probably related to computer programming restrictions that mean you can’t have spaces in variables and file names, and I concluded that “marketers decided it was a trendy way to make a company name stand out.”
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Camel Case: The URL Factor
Pete takes exception to my conclusion and makes an interesting point. He wrote, “There's a key piece of missing information here. A major force driving the spread of CamelCase is quite specifically the desire for ‘.com’ web URLs that correspond to your company or brand. In the top-level “.com” domain, virtually every simple English word is taken. The easiest way to find “.com” address that's both memorable and available is to combine two words.
Your newfound URL can't have a space in it, so neither can your new company or brand. But if you don't capitalize the second word, you get a compound word instead of two words, and the effect is often strange. In 1999, I found a great URL for my internet publishing startup: NetRead. If I didn't use CamelCase and spelled the company Netread, I found that half the people seeing the name pronounced it ‘Knee-Tread’ (My parents still prefer that pronunciation, presumably because they hate me.)
Companies neglect CamelCase at their peril. It seems to me that Netease.com has succeeded in spite of their name [which could easily be interpreted as knee-tease], while Netflix was safe with the single cap. Even without such land mines, the extra capital letters can make the name easier to grok or remember: LowerMyBills.com is easier on the eye than Lowermybills.com. I could go on, but you probably get the point: It's all about the URL. ”
I would argue that it is possible to have a space in your company name and still write it as camel case whenever you print the URL, but I do see his point also that the trend toward camel case isn't just marketers trying to be cute--it also has a practical underbelly. Also, in some instances URLs can be case sensitive, so it is a good idea to be consistent and reinforce how you want people to type your URL into their browsers. Plus, I'm always harping on people about being consistent, so I stand corrected, or at least better informed and more open minded.
The New York Times on Camel Case
Pete also pointed me to a New York Times “On Language” column by Caleb Crain that ran back on November 23.
Indeed, Crain also points to the digital world as a driver behind the growth of camel case. Crain says “In the 1980s and ’90s, word spacing became seriously endangered, probably because, as the magazine New Scientist has noted, the most charismatic capitalists of those decades came from Silicon Valley, where software languages often required them to omit word spaces. To save their eyesight, programmers injected capitals into their compounds, and as they ascended to cultural hegemony, ‘Word’ was sealed to ‘Perfect,’ ‘Quick’ soldered to ‘Time’ and ‘Power’ married to ‘Point.’”
An Ancient Form of Camel Case
Crain goes on to report something else I found fascinating though. He writes that ancient Greek and Latin did without spaces between words in the beginning, and people had to read texts out loud to figure out what the words were supposed to be.
When to Use Camel Case
Finally, my advice to those trying to figure out when to use camel case is if you’re writing about a company and the formal company name uses camel case, honor their spelling and write it that way. Otherwise, avoid it.