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17 April 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 1:01pm

How capital letters became internet code for shouting

And why we should lay off the caps-lock key.

By Alice Robb

The rules of “netiquette” are not exactly static or undisputed. Are emoticons appropriate in formal emails? Are “trigger warnings” thoughtful or over-the-top? Are you irritating everyone you email with your “signature”? The uncertainty that typically surrounds these questions makes it all the more remarkable that there’s one convention that is incontestable: Typing in all caps is internet code for shouting, and it is rude.

People have long used capital letters to set text apart and convey its importance, but upper case letters haven’t always signified loudness. The first bloggers may be responsible for that development: Linguist Ben Zimmer pointed me to old “Usenet newsgroups” – the precursors of the forums and Reddit threads that dominate the Internet today – where people hashed out what capital letters would mean online. In 1984, one user had to explain: “if it’s in caps i’m trying to YELL!” In one of the best clues into the evolution of this convention, another user, Dave Decot, summed up the situation as he understood it in 1984:

there seem to be some conventions developing in the use of various emphasizers. There are three kinds of emphasis in use, in order of popularity:

1) using CAPITAL LETTERS to make words look “louder”,2) using *asterisks* to put sparklers around emphasized words, and 3) s p a c i n g words o u t, possibly accompanied by 1) or 2).

We’ll probably never know exactly why it was convention number one that caught on, but there may be something intuitive about using capital letters for emphasis. Professor Paul Luna, director of the department of typography and graphic communication at the UK’s University of Reading, told me we’ve been using caps to convey “grandeur,” “pomposity,” or “aesthetic seriousness” for thousands of years – at least since Roman emperors had monuments inscribed, in all caps, with their own heroic accomplishmnets. Writers have used capital letters to convey anger in print, too. Linguist John McWhorter pointed out two examples from the days of typewriting. It becomes apparent in pianist Philippa Schuyler’s biography, Composition in Black and White, that she “was quite fond of using caps to yell” – as early as the 1940s. In the 1970s, Robert Moses used all caps to convey his rage at a draft of Robert Caro’s biography, The Power Broker. “I myself would have used caps to ‘yell’ on a typewriter when I was a kid in those years, also,” said McWhorter.

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“All-capitals provide visibility – maximum size within a given area,” said Luna. And that works online, too. “All-caps in an email looks like shouting because when someone is shouting, you’re aware of the shout, and not the nuance,” Luna told me over email. “ALL-CAPS FILL THE SPACE, so there’s an element of feeling that the message is crowding out everything else.”

If typing in all caps is a lazy way of yelling – a crutch for the angry and inarticulate – then the keyboard is complicit: The “caps lock” key makes it unreasonably easy for us to be rude (even, sometimes, inadvertently). “Caps lock” has, in fact, inspired more controversy than most keys. Getting rid of it is one of Matthew J.X. Malady’s top suggestions for improving the keyboard. “The key is a nuisance, its prime real estate leading us to depress it unintentionally and often unwittingly,” he complains at Slate. The “caps lock” key has inspired larger-scale protests, too. In 2006, Belgian software developer Pieter Hintjens launched the “CAPSoff” campaign, aiming to get the offending key kicked off the keyboard altogether. Though the project was welcomed by outlets like The New Scientist, Wired, and The Chicago Tribune, “That campaign ended many years ago,” Hintjens told me over email, admitting that it “didn’t make any real change.” The CAPSoff campaign may not have achieved its mission, but it’s never too late. I say we should revive Dave Decot’s third suggestion: spacing words out to show anger. Not only does it take more time – upping the chance that you’ll calm down before you press “send” – hitting the space bar between each letter is kind of therapeutic. It fits with the new, nicer internet of 2014 – the internet of Upworthy and Viral Nova, cute cat videos and eBay altruism.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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