Hello, everyone! This is the first installment in a regular series of researched and reported stories that @dave asked me to write about things of broad interest to the community. I'll be writing about Internet culture and quirky technology and language, among other things. I've been reporting about oddments related to tech for over 20 years, and I'm looking forward to getting to know everyone!
WHY AM I YELLING? Because I have important, breaking news from 1856 about a truly uppercase notion.
If you’re reading this article on a screen, you certainly know that THESE ARE CALLED SHOUTY CAPS. The use of all uppercase letters in email, on web pages, in forums, and beyond has meant that someone is angry, confused, or elderly—or a combination of all three. Even if they didn’t MEAN TO SHOUT, you certainly HEAR IT AS SHOUTING INSIDE YOUR HEAD. Unintentional caps denote cluelessness; if intentional, jerkiness.
The National Weather Service (NWS) paid homage to this recently, noting on April 11, 2016: “LISTEN UP! BEGINNING ON MAY 11, NOAA’S NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE FORECASTS WILL STOP YELLING AT YOU.” The use of only uppercase letters by the NWS dates back to 1928, with the installation of teleprinters that could be remotely controlled to type out news reports. The NWS has finally retired the last vestiges of these elder systems, allowing it to switch to mixed case.
Previous articles on this subject—such as this previously definitive short at the New Republic—trace the explicit association of capitals with yelling (as opposed to mere emphasis) to 1984, with inferences a few decades before that.
I’m here to BLOW THIS OUT OF THE WATER, with a series of citations that date back to 1856. People have been uppercase shouting intentionally for a century more than recollected. And, as with so many things, longtime Internet users want to claim credit, when they really just passed on and more broadly popularized an existing practice.
I suspected a longer history because I’m a recovering typesetter, a one-time member of a now nearly defunct profession of compositing type in lines and on a page, whether in metal, wood, or bits. I was trained in the 1980s, probably among the very last in a line stretching back to not long after Gutenberg. I studied graphic design and its history in college and have read extensively on the subject since.
In all my typographic reading, I’d never come across an explicit connection between all capitals and yelling, but I knew two things: First, capitals and lowercase developed not in lockstep but from different methods of inscribing or writing; second, uppercase letters have been used for millennia for emphasis and importance.
Sue Walker, the director of collections and archives in typography at the University of Reading, England, found an apposite description in a 1674 book, The Compleat English Schoolmaster, by Elisha Coles. The author wrote that a whole word in capitals “is alwa[y]es more than ordinarily remarkable; as some signal name, Title, Inscription, or the like...”
But surely, I thought, there must be some more direct correlation out there—not just an insinuation or a practice, but writers (or fictional characters) explaining it to a reader.
AND, YES, THERE IS. But let’s start with the reveal before diving into the full history and a novel theory I have about shouty caps’ disappearance and re-emergence.
The first clear citation I can find is in the Evening Star, a Washington, D.C., newspaper. It appears on February 28, 1856 and was syndicated to other papers around the same time. In a “hilarious” dialect story about a Dutchman who seems to be disease-ridden, this wonderful sentence appears:
[“]I dells you I’ve got der small pox. Ton’t you vetsteh? der SMALL POX!” This time he shouted it out in capital letters.
The words “small pox” appear in capitals—well, small capitals, a variant I’ll explain in a moment—but there’s our smoking gun. The way the sentence is phrased makes it clear that the convention of capitals meaning shouting has already become part of readers’ consciousness. (By the way, the Dutchman of the story was trying to deliver a “small box.”)
I found a small but significant cascade of newspaper and book references following that. The Ottawa Free Trader in 1860 notes that a story in another newspaper announced an election “in grand glaring capitals and head letter shouts of victory.”
In 1870, the Shamrock (Ireland) published part 3 of a fictional account labeled “The Sore Grievance of Wellspanked John.” At one point, the narrator is thrown into a great basket of duck eggs, and after that his aunt is told she must pay for them:
“TWELVE shillings and SEVEN pence?” roared my aunt in the biggest capital letters—“Twelve and seven pence! Good gracious me!”
There’s also a clear connection in elocution manuals. For instance, an 1880 book, The Standard Speaker and Elocutionist, explains the convention to readers. “As examples, note the following selections marked in CAPITAL letters as the appropriate place for shouting emphasis.” It then proceeds to mark up part of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
There are more, too, such as “The enthusiasm of the shout in capital letters” (1885), “warning signals which flash up in front of his eyes and shout in capital letters, SLOW DOWN!” (1913), and the like. I am sure there are more and earlier examples in which people used the convention without the archness of mentioning it.
Paul Luna, an expert in the design of complex text and a professor at the University of Reading, points out that these examples of mine and others he found separately demonstrate a “moralistic sense”: “The association with pomposity, bureaucracy, and self-importance crops up too often.” He notes, “No one seems to think that the use of capitals (whether in writing/print or by analogy in speech) is unequivocally a good thing!”
Starting in about the 1920s and through the 1980s, I can’t find anything of the sort available from the 1850s to 1910s. This is partly due to copyright eccentricities: Everything published in America before 1923 is in the public domain and more readily digitized and searched; starting in 1923, it’s a complicated mix. I consulted Google Books, Newspapers.com, Amazon (which has full-text search of some modern books), and other sources and found almost nothing.
Before we leap forward, though, let's take a pause before we step back in history in Part 2. Tune in to this space in a week, on May 19, when we see SHOUTY CAPS rise again as part of our common understanding.