I find the nature of this technique Quite Intriguing.
December 2, 2008 2:37 PM   Subscribe

What's the deal with Sarcastic Caps? You know The Kind I Mean.

Connoisseurs of snark will be long familiar with this Little Trick: capitalizing Certain Words in a sentence in order to express what I guess you would call Sarcastic Importance. (NO, NOT LIKE THIS -- THIS MEANS INTERNET SHOUTING AND MOTORMOUTHINESS.) What I'm talking about is Much More Subtle than that.

I see it All The Time on snarkfests like Wonkette, and have been partial to it myself. It seems to only "work" on short phrases instead of single words For Some Reason.

So, where does this Ubiquitous Technique come from? Does it have a name? And why is it so good at conveying sarcasm?

The best guess I could make is that it's based on the Seemingly Random capitalizations found in Distinguished Documents like the Declaration of Independence (previously), but I don't see how that gets transferred to Sarcastic Internet Writing. Alas, the topic is Sadly Un-Googleable.

Anybody got any ideas?
posted by Rhaomi to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Also, links to any essays or articles that use this technique to Particularly Hilarious Effect are welcome.
posted by Rhaomi at 2:40 PM on December 2, 2008

off the top of my head, a.a. milne uses it. it evokes a sort of precious late 19th early 20th century feel to me. i think it is effective at communicating pedantic sarcasm because a whole lot of internet people use it to communicate that tone. i do not think it is actually witty though.
posted by beefetish at 2:44 PM on December 2, 2008 [4 favorites]

It makes non-proper nouns into proper nouns. Thus, I do not just have big feet, I have Big Feet. It's like using a definite article instead of an indefinite article (or no article), e.g. Check The Google. It turns normal things into things that are so unique that they need a proper noun, mocking people's perception of the thing's importance.
posted by GuyZero at 2:49 PM on December 2, 2008 [4 favorites]

The way you used it in the linked thread, I'd say it's more a way of pointing to a stereotype or cliche than necessarily indicating sarcasm. You're treating the phrase as if it were a formal designation or title, which is obviously silly.
posted by jon1270 at 2:50 PM on December 2, 2008

Not sure myself, but I have a feeling it has something to do with Proper Nouns, to impart a sense of Propriety or perhaps Customary Procedure.

I do recall the proper-nouning of things to be a Crustimoney Proseedcake in the original Winnie-the-Pooh stories. (On preview, what beefetish says.)
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:52 PM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

posted by mandal at 3:00 PM on December 2, 2008

Milne does do it in the Winnie the Pooh stories - these quotes have the strange capitalisation all over the place - but it usually puts me in mind of 1066 and All That, with its Good Things and Bad Kings.

Writing this makes me wonder whether it occurs in 3 Men in a Boat, for some reason.
posted by calico at 3:01 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

It could be that using capitalization places an emphasis on those particular words, just as if you were saying them sarcastically in a sentence.

For example, something could be large, but if I were typing and being sarcastic I would say that yeah, it was the Most Gigantic Thing Ever.
posted by amicamentis at 3:09 PM on December 2, 2008

Some blogs & pages that accept reader comments don't accept html coding for bolding, italicizing, etc. Initial caps add emphasis without shouting.
posted by headnsouth at 3:11 PM on December 2, 2008

I swear this started with Emily Dickinson, who used capitalization to highlight important or ironic words. The first example off the top of my head is "Because I could not stop for Death" where she capitalizes all sorts of seemingly mundane nouns.
posted by zoomorphic at 3:15 PM on December 2, 2008

Terry Pratchett uses it all the time... not necessarily sarcastically, but it has the same effect. I think it adds an arch, between-you-and-me, oh-yes-you-know-what-I-mean quality to the words.

It's like: "I got home at 2am. My wife gave me the look." "... My wife gave me The Look."

It makes them proper nouns. It adds significance and weight to the words.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 3:15 PM on December 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Is it dumb that I sometimes do this verbally? "He made a really Big Deal, capital-B capital-D"
posted by ersatzkat at 3:16 PM on December 2, 2008

It's not dumb if you're a quirky character on a TV sitcom. Have you applied for work at 30 Rock?
posted by GuyZero at 3:23 PM on December 2, 2008

German, a language often regarded as pompous, requires the capitalization of all nouns.
posted by Carol Anne at 3:52 PM on December 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

Take a look at Pynchon's Mason and Dixon - it'll show you how often the language back in ye olden days used this style.
posted by OrangeDrink at 3:54 PM on December 2, 2008

Real Soon Now.
posted by zippy at 4:03 PM on December 2, 2008

The author of the Mary Poppins books did it a lot. Can't remember their name.
posted by jgirl at 4:05 PM on December 2, 2008

It might be an application of those self-important-sounding non-fiction books you can get in airport bookstores, with titles like Understanding Your Potential: How to Do it. I remember reading a review of Lois Lowry's The Giver in which the reviewer uses said technique pretty effectively.

Quote from that:

"Things are the way they are because The Author is Making A Point; things work out the way they do because The Author's Point Requires It."
posted by trotter at 4:35 PM on December 2, 2008

See also the sarcastic trademark: i.e., Sarcastic CapsTM
posted by niles at 4:48 PM on December 2, 2008

Kind of a P.G. Wodehouse thing too, with regard to that early-20thC feel.
posted by johngoren at 4:48 PM on December 2, 2008

David Foster Wallace does it a lot.

"A Dictionary of Modern American Usage has no Editorial Staff or Distinguished Panel."
"America is in a protracted Crisis of Authority in matters of language."
posted by suedehead at 4:56 PM on December 2, 2008

I think it's three different things- (although I never saw it as sarcasm)

1- When used judiciously, it emphasizes a point.

(subcategory of this being people who annoyingly speak and type so that Every Word They Say is Important. Just. So. Very. Important.)

2- Ignorance of the English language and how to use it correctly. I put it in the same category as the cretins who abuse apostrophe's (HA!) and use the sickening comma ellipses.

3- Non native English speakers. I seem to remember that in German, more things are capitalized.

I always thought italics were for sarcasm.
posted by gjc at 5:33 PM on December 2, 2008

Seconding zippy, that was my first real exposure to the concept. See also: Bad Thing.
posted by rhizome at 8:33 PM on December 2, 2008

Thanks for the feedback. everybody. So as far as I can see, it's a flexible thing that can
- Ape the anachronistic, overblown style of period writing
- Bestow mock importance or give sarcastic respect to silly concepts (ironic attachment?)
- Slyly emphasize certain ideas without the shoutiness of all caps, the technical requirements of bold/italics, or the distracting quality of *asterisks*, _underlines_, etc.
- Act as a sort of internalized sarcasm mark

The origin of the technique is still unclear, I guess because it used to be used earnestly in the early 20th century and was appropriated by modern authors, which then arguably influenced its use in web writing. It would be cool if its usage online could be traced to one person or essay like, say, the smiley can, but I doubt it was started by any one person, or, if it was, that that writing could be tracked down, since it lacks a formal title or canonical example and is not something that can be searched for easily (is there even a case-sensitive search engine out there?).

Thanks again, everybody!
posted by Rhaomi at 8:37 PM on December 2, 2008

To me it's used to emphasize the shared universality of a concept. For example if you wrote, "she gave me The Look," the capitalization suggests that this is no ordinary facial expression but rather one which is named with a proper noun, as if we should all be familiar with it for we have all experienced its sternness or piercing quality (or whatever notable aspect is discernible from the surrounding context.) It's sort of like the written equivalent of what happens when you are having a verbal conversation with someone in person and by way of non-verbal cues (a chuckle, smile, nod) the other person signals that they relate or have had an experience similar to what you're describing.
posted by Rhomboid at 7:20 AM on December 3, 2008

I always thought italics were for sarcasm.

No, not at all -- they're for emphasis, among other things. They're incredibly useful in writing to show how people actually talk -- when we say a word (or even a single syllable in a word) at a slightly higher frequency.
(see Salinger, J.D.)
posted by Rash at 2:15 PM on December 3, 2008

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