By Jay Hodges
At the dog park last weekend, a car pulled in with the sticker “I love my French poodle” on the back bumper. My dog Otis stopped midsniff as the pom-pom-sporting poodle darted from the car to the nearest patch of grass. Otis wanted to say hello, but not being able to bark a word of French, he was just too intimidated. No matter how much I tried to convince Otis that the poodle probably wasn’t French as in from France French, he wouldn’t budge. Who would have thought a lousy bumper sticker could have such an effect on a dog’s self-esteem?
My interpretation of the line was different from Otis’s. I assumed the creator of the sticker had erroneously thought that “French poodle” is a breed and had capitalized the initial letter of the term as is the commonly accepted spelling for the names of breeds that can be traced to specific geographic locations (e.g., Rhodesian ridgeback, Norwegian elkhound, and Chihuahua).
But if capitalizing the first letter of the word to identify the geographic origin of something is common practice, then why, you may ask, not capitalize the F in “french toast,” the B in “brie,” or the initial I in “india ink”? If Webster’s is your source for capitalization and spelling, then you probably already capitalize these initial letters. But watch out, Webster’s can be vague. For example, the main entry for “scotch” (as in the whiskey distilled in Scotland) is “Scotch,” with a capital S. However, “often not capitalized” precedes the definition. Another example of this sort of fuzziness is the term “french fry,” which appears with lowercase Fs, but is followed by the usage note “often capitalized first F.” Hmmm. Though Webster’s will let you know how the word “scotch” commonly appears, and that the first F in “french fry” may or may not be capitalized, the dictionary reflects the vernacular instead of hard-and-fast rules that determine usage.
At Greenleaf, we refer to the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) first, Webster’s second. CMS states that words derived from personal names are usually capitalized: Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the play No Exit. “Hell is other people” is a Sartrean concept. CMS refines usage with the following rule of thumb: “personal, national, or geographic names, and names derived from such names, are often lowercased when used with a nonliteral meaning.” So instead of adding “French bread” to your shopping list when you want a baguette, write “french bread,” lest you end up trying to decide between a croissant and un petit pan in the imported bread section of your bakery. The same holds true for “french braid,” “french toast,” “french dressing,” and “french doors.” (My how we’ve been influenced by the French.)
So, following the CMS’s guidelines for capitalizing words derived from proper nouns, wouldn’t it seem logical that the proper spelling of the dog breeds listed above appear with a lowercase letter? One would think so. But CMS recommends consulting a dictionary for the proper spelling of domestic animal breeds. You try explaining that to your dog.