Quick! Can you answer the following questions?
- Where do poles come from?
- What do Cats do?
- Where would you find a hamlet?
OK – fair enough. These are weird questions.
However, if your answers were: “Poland,” “catch mice” and “in Shakespeare,” then you need to keep reading, friend!
Because these were all trick questions.
A Pole comes from Poland, but a pole is something else.
A cat catches mice, but not Cat. Well … at least not the ones I know.
And sure – you can find Hamlet in a Shakespeare play (the one called “Macbeth,” right?), but hamlets? Well, they’re not the same thing.
These kinds of words are all called capitonyms. They’re words that have different meanings when the first letter is capitalised (like Turkey/turkey or Mass/mass).
In other words, one of the words is someone’s or something’s name, and the other word is just … a normal word.
Let’s check out some of the most useful capitonyms.
And then draw some pictures.
Because pictures are fun!
Capitonyms That Are Places
Some of the most capitonyms come from the names of places.
China! You know, that massive country with the world’s highest population and some of the nicest food in the world.
China is also the word for a material. It’s a type of ceramic.
Think about expensive cups, plates and dishes.
These words are actually related. So take a close look at the first image of my article and remember – China originally comes from China.
The fascinating country that lies between Europe and the Arab world but has its own language, culture and identity.
And the best tea.
Well, it’s a bird. It’s a bit like a chicken but slightly more ridiculous.
This is the adjective for Poland.
The European country between Germany and Lithuania.
With a slightly different pronunciation, polish /ˈpɒl ɪʃ/ is either a verb meaning “to rub a surface to make it shiny” or a noun meaning “the stuff that you use to make the surface shiny.”
Think of a nice, big, wooden table.
It’s important to keep it clean, right?
But it’s also good to keep it shiny, right?
So polish it!
We’re still in Poland.
That’s because the Polish people (or, the Poles) have two captonyms related to their country.
So the country is called Poland.
The adjective is Polish /poʊlɪʃ/.
And the people who live there? They’re Poles.
A pole is also a long, thin, usually rounded piece of wood or metal.
It’s often put in the ground to support something. Like a road sign, for example.
In China, there are loads of languages.
But the official one is a variety of Chinese called Mandarin.
A mandarin is also a type of small orange.
They’re great because they’re easier to peel than normal oranges.
Bohemia is a large part of western Czechia.
“Bohemian” is the adjective.
In the 15th century, the French used the word bohemién to mean gypsy.
That’s because they believed that many of the Roma in France came from Bohemia.
However, over time, “bohemian” started to be used as a term for someone who rejected conventional or traditional society.
A free spirit.
Capitonyms That Are Related To Each Other
Some capitonyms are no coincidence (as we’ve already seen with China and Bohemia).
We often get the name for things based on other things.
You know this, right?
It’s that God-awful ’90s film that made people cry in the cinema and relaunched Celine Dion’s career.
I also heard that it was a famous ship that sank.
The word “titanic” actually means “really, really, REALLY big.”
So, when they made a really, really, REALLY big ship, they decided to call it that.
Actually – it’s quite a good name for a ship, right?
Better than “Boaty McBoatFace.”
Or “the Iceberg Killer.”
Mercury is a Roman god.
I just had a quick look to see what he did. What is he god of?
Well, it turns out that he’s a busy guy.
According to Wikipedia, he’s the god of “financial gain, commerce, eloquence, messages, communication (including divination), travelers, boundaries, luck, trickery and thieves.”
So he helps businessmen by letting them steal stuff and then talk about how they did a nice thing?
OK – that makes sense.
It’s also where we get the word “merchant.”
Mercury is also the liquid metal that you find in thermometers.
You know – the stuff that expands when it gets hotter and contracts when it gets colder, so that we can see how hot it is outside … named after the god for some reason.
I guess it’s something to do with the traveling.
Capitonym That Are Names
There are lots of nick-names out there.
I’ve always had a strange relationship with my name.
Because my name is long, people keep wanting to shorten it.
When I was a kid, people called me “Gabe,” and I hated it, so I insisted on “Gabs.”
Then I didn’t like that, so insisted on the full “Gabriel.”
For some reason, now I really like “Gabe” again.
Anyway – “Gabe” doesn’t mean anything.
But there are a lot of nick-names that do.
“Bill” is actually short for “William.”
Which makes about as much sense as nothing ever.
Depending on where you are, a bill can be what your waiter gives you after your meal so you know how much to pay (UK) or a piece of paper money (US).
“Bob” is short for “Robert.”
Which also doesn’t make sense.
When something moves up and down regularly, then it bobs.
Think of a boat bobbing up and down on the sea.
Or a flower bobbing in the wind.
Or your face when you’re pretending to understand what someone’s saying, yet you’ve lost track long ago.
“Cat” is short for “Kate” or “Cathryn.”
Which makes much more sense.
We all know what a cat is, right?
Frank is … well … just a name.
If you’re a frank person, then you’re very direct and honest.
You like to say things directly.
It’s a positive word, and we usually associate it with pragmatic people.
There’s also a useful phrase you can use when you want to warn someone that you’re going to say something directly:
“To be frank …”
“To be or not to be …”
We all know about this Shakespearean character, right?
He liked talking to skulls.
What’s smaller than a town?
A village, right?
But what’s smaller than a village?
You know – when you just have a road and three, four or maybe five houses along the road.
Perhaps there’s a shop. Perhaps not.
That’s called a hamlet.
Like many things in this world, there are lots of examples of capitonyms that don’t comfortably fit into a particular category.
Here are some of the most common ones.
Lent is a Christian thing.
It’s a time when some people give something up (like drinking or smoking or cheese) for 40 days before Easter.
You know this one, right?
What’s the past of “lend”?
Yep, it’s “lent.”
What comes next:
January, February, … ?
Yep! That’s right.
No … sorry. March, right?
Yeah – March.
I always mix those two up.
Marching is also an action.
It means to walk in a regular, organised way.
We often think of the way lots of soldiers walk together, always stepping at the same time and in the same way.
Sometimes it can be used to describe a political protest – one that involves walking from one place to another.
This is also another Christian thing – specifically a Catholic one.
It’s the big ritual where Catholics eat a piece of bread and drink a bit of red wine.
When you want to talk about a large, physical thing that has no particular shape, you can just call it a “mass.”
Like when you clean your bathroom and find a mass of hair in the sink.
I really hate that!
OK. So back to those questions at the beginning.
- Where do poles come from? From … a pole factory?
- What do Cats do? It depends which one I suppose. One of my friends called Cat does a great vegan pizza.
- Where would you find a hamlet? On a road in the countryside.
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Gabriel Clark, LOS Consultant & Clark and Miller Co-founder