Regarding “Against Camel Case”

Caleb Crain’s article “Against Camel Case” in the New York Times is part informative historical information, and part silly exhortation. And through it all he doesn’t address the most important issue, that being, shouldn’t it be spelled “CamelCase”?

Actually, what I think he misses is the more interesting issue, which is that while the advent of writing initially helped to “fix” language so that it evolved somewhat more slowly (well, English, anyway), the greater use of writing for a wider variety of communication has cause the written form of the language to evolve rapidly and in unpredictable ways: The ubiquity of acronyms (LOL, WTF, IMHO and their brethren), which evolved (sort of) into L33Tspeak and text message lingo (which seems closely related in spirit, if not in derivation), which has started creeping out of the Internet and into student papers and such.

Language evolves. These things happen. I’m as pedantic as the next guy (probably much more pedantic than the next guy) about using correct grammar and spelling (typos and my meandering run-on sentences notwithstanding), but arguing for uniformity seems hopeless at best, senseless at worst. Set against some of the linguistic developments of the Internet age, camel case seems relatively innocuous.

Crain’s historical notes on the subtraction and later restoration of spaces in Latin is fascinating (separation of words by spaces was dropped completely? Wow), but I think he’s missing the forest for the trees: It’s pretty drastic to drop what is the functional demarcation between units, but not nearly as much so to drop a demarcation within a unit. “Bank of America” doesn’t mean “this is the bank of the entire nation” (there are, after all, other banks), but rather “this is a bank whose unique name is ‘Bank of America'”. That’s probably not that BofA wants their name to mean, but in practice that’s what people use the name to mean. And I expect that BofA recognized this when they changed their name (if only temporarily) to “BankAmerica”. (They might also have wanted to avoid people accidentally abbreviating their name with a term that could be pronounced ‘boh-fah’, though I have always heard people pronounce it as ‘bee-of-ay’.) The whole term is a unit, and the spacing is almost irrelevant.

Camel case is currently used in terms intended to sound trendy or cool (or that’s how I interpret it, anyway). Obviously, YMMV as to whether it sounds that way, but the intent, I think, is to convey that little extra emphasis. (Whether or not camel case is appropriate for a given company or product is another matter.) But I hardly think the loss of a few spaces is worth much fuss. At best, it might be grounds for a slippery slope argument, and we all know how much those are worth. It seems more likely that camel case is just one of Crain’s pet peeves.

The evolution of language is a fascinating thing, and it’s going to happen whether we want it to or not, and probably in ways we can’t anticipate. It’s just one more way the information era is changing and challenging the nature of our lives and our world.

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