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The Day the Internet Became “internet”

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Last year, while internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch was working on a proposal for a book about internet language, she sent a draft to her agent for some feedback.

“When we were reviewing the draft my agent said, ‘Is there a reason why you had internet lowercase here?’” McCulloch told me. “And I wrote this extended reply, that I’m on the vanguard of linguistic change. My agent said, ‘Oh we need to put that footnote in the book proposal on the first page, because that’s why you’re writing it.’”

Since then, things have changed — or at least, two things have changed. In early April, the Associated Press announced that it would finally de-capitalize the words “internet” and “web” in its 2016 AP Stylebook, an influential handbook used by most major publications. The change had a ricochet effect on The New York Times, another stickler for antiquated styling, which announced it would follow suit last week.

“In our view, it’s become wholly generic, like ‘electricity’ or the ‘telephone,’” AP standards editor Thomas Kent told a reporter at the Times. “It was never trademarked. It’s not based on any proper noun. The best reason for capitalizing it in the past may have been that the word was new.”

In reality, lingual gatekeepers have doled out quite a few reasons to justify internet’s capitalization over the years. There’s a great body of evidence to support capitalization,” David Minthorn, coeditor of the AP Stylebook, told the New Republic less than a year ago. Most of those reasons come down to this: In the 1970s, the word “internet” was derived from the word “inter-network,” which was defined as a set of smaller networks that exchanged data using one set of rules. So, in the eyes of the general population (or at least of the engineers who used inter-networks) there were multiple internets, and they were always lowercase. When people started using dial-up internet services, however, the need to disambiguate wedged a the before the word and encouraged capitalizing, according to Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries at Oxford University Press. Now institutions like hers, which has yet to make the lowercase shift in this case, want to ensure they’re reflecting the style that the majority of people are using.

“We always say dictionaries are a lagging indicator of language change,” she told me. “Most examples of internet when we first added it, were with a capital ‘I.’ So we’re going to wait until most usage has changed to a lowercase ‘I,’ and until we’re confident that the change is going to stick. We wouldn’t want to lowercase it and then a year from now this turns out that this is just a fad.”

In a recent blog post, Martin cites evidence collected by the Oxford English Corpus, a database that sifts through a massive amount of academic papers, articles, and other mostly-edited text to determine how English speakers are using words. Though the usage has been steadily shifting in favor of the lowercase “I” over the past few years, capital-“I” internet still accounts for about 54 percent of all examples. (The U.K., on the other hand, has evolved much quicker toward a lowercase “I.”)

<a href=""><em>Oxford Dictionaries</em></a>
Oxford Dictionaries

For most children of the internet, however, the end of the great uppercase holdout is laughably late. When the AP announced it would de-capitalize internet, Wired mocked the slothlike speed of the AP style’s change in a headline that read “The AP Finally Realizes It’s 2016, Will Let Us Stop Capitalizing ‘Internet’.” Gawker declared a rare victory for its kind, writing “But today is a day for bloggers to rejoice, for they have won the word ‘internet.’” Joseph Turow — a communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania who first began advocating for a lowercase internet way back in 2002 — was especially gratified by the announcement. “This is an example of a kind of microcosm of cultural change,” he told me. “It’s a minuscule thing in the context of world events. But I don’t think it’s unimportant.”

Martin admits that the particularly passionate outcry over internet’s capitalization has been one of the first things that, as a lexicographer, has made her feel, well, old.

“There’s a huge generational divide on this issue,” she said. “Making it have a proper name, made sense. It was the Thing, the Internet. Now, for people who are born after 1990, it’s where you live, and where you exist and any notion of it being a proper name seems very strange.”

One reason for this passionate response, according to McCulloch, is that the internet has made casual, informal writing more visible and available to the average person. Whereas written material produced by older generations may have been largely formal — a work memo, or a college paper — texting and chatting is an everyday exercise for most these days. And in participating in this way, people quickly attach a sense of identity to the style of writing they use.

“Even if they’re not consciously aware, people might be subconsciously aware of the trajectories for linguistic change, like which forms seem new, which forms seem associated with young people,” McCulloch said. “If you want to indicate you are a young person and you are with it, then you’re going to use the forms that are associated with people who are more technologically savvy. So if you want to show that you’re someone who really gets the internet I think you’re more likely to use lowercase internet.”

And as for that much-discussed footnote in McCulloch’s forthcoming book? The AP’s change of heart means that she probably won’t be including it after all.

“It’s like, ‘goddamnit AP,’” she said. “‘You couldn’t have done this a couple of years ago?’”