Professional Style

Capitalization: Eponyms

October 2013
Spot the Error

Persuading young children to eat lima beans can be a Herculean task.

Herculean and other words derived from a person’s name are called eponyms. Dictionaries disagree on the capitalization of eponyms, but it seems that the wider the use of the word, the more likely it is to be lowercase.

According to the Associated Press Stylebook, “Capitalize words that are derived from a proper noun and still depend on it for their meaning,” such as Shakespearean, Marxist, and Freudian. “Lowercase words that are derived from a proper noun but no longer depend on it for their meaning,” such as herculean, caesarian, and malapropism. In other words, in the “lima bean” sentence above, the reader knows that herculean means requiring great strength or effort even if they don’t know anything about Hercules the Greek demigod; therefore, lowercase.

Other examples of eponyms that are not capitalized include:

  • draconian (from the Athenian lawmaker Draco) – harsh
  • mercurial (from the Roman god Mercury) – rapid and unpredictable, especially in the changing of mood
  • quixotic (from the fictional character Don Quixote) – foolishly impractical, especially in the pursuit of ideals
  • satanic (from Satan) – evil; fiendish

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