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An Improper Earth

August 23, 2010

My friend, Casady, has been helping me with my book project by proofreading.  (She willfully endures torture that the non-captive blog-reading public is spared.)  Casady pointed out to me in Chapter 2 that I had capitalized planets—and even non-planets (Vesta and Ceres)—but did not capitalize “earth.”

I’ve absentmindedly left earth as lowercase for years.  I have been operating under a hazy recollection from childhood that earth is not capitalized because heaven is not capitalized.

As haziness is not surety, I investigated further.  Lazing at the computer, I checked online.  Certainly, the proper rendering of earth is a universal FAQ of students and celestial writers everywhere, so I googled.

I was struck by the general disinterest in this topic.  Precious few sites talk about it.  Unbelievable—in an internet where people can get steamed over espresso foam, I did not find a frenzied “Team Earth” hurling vulgarities at “team earth” and vice versa.

Dictionary.com weighed in with a bizarre breakdown, hinging on “the”:

If you are talking about the Earth as a proper noun, as a planet or celestial body, then you can capitalize Earth and use no article (the): “How far is Earth from the Sun?” But it is also fine to leave it as lowercase and use the with earth if you are talking about it as the planet we live on: “The earth rotates on its axis.” … When you are talking about the ground or soil …, then you must lowercase the word: “The archaeologists excavated the earth at the site.”

The general internet advice-givers’ consensus on various Answers pages is that there is a time for lowercase earth and a time for capital Earth, depending on the context.  But, to my pre-internet brain, none of this was satisfyingly authoritative.  I embarked on a long search through many publications.

My search ended when a practical librarian pointed me to the proper mountaintop authority: The Oxford English Dictionary (1).

earth, definition II: the world. … the land and the sea, as distinguished from the sky: (also E-) the planet on which humankind lives: the present abode of humankind as distinguished from heaven or hell as places of future existence.

Aaahh, thought I.  Capital!  There it is.

“(also E-)” provides the requisite distinction.  Either earth or Earth is correct, but lowercase is more correct.  And moooore correct is all I ever wanted to be.

But the OED continued.  Multiple columns discussed aspects of a lowercase earth.  Until this tidbit under “earthbound”:

… fixed on or in the earth’s surface: restricted to the planet Earth or to worldly concerns.

So must “e” be capital in the phrase “the planet Earth?”  OED did not deign to discuss it.

What on earth?!  Phooey!

So much for unequivocal authority.

Before my search brought me to the OED, I found dichotomous approaches to earth.  For some it is a proper noun; for others, improper.  One thing I can say with some certainty, though, is that almost no one uses the three-tiered approach advocated by Dictionary.com and internet Answer providers.  Earth as dirt is not capitalized.  Earth as a great big ball of space-dirt is capitalized always or never, depending on the publication, with only rare exceptions.  And no one gives a fig for articles like “the.”

So here’s a look at the planet from a few different perspectives:

Clear as mud – er – earth, no?

But maybe I’m asking the wrong question all together.  Do we say something about our personal worldview in our written expression of terra firma?  Is there something we connote subliminally?

Does “earth” indicate an intimacy with our planet that we don’t have with other planets?  Is it so synonymous with home that the name itself is informal to us?

Or does “earth” show a grammatical disrespect for our planet, reflecting our active destruction of the miraculous biosphere?  Is “Earth” a demonstration of planetary respect?

I haven’t the foggiest notion how to answer such philosophical quandaries.  They are beyond the horizon of my terrestrial consciousness.  I need a simple bottom line.  Until proven otherwise, I’m siding with the Bible and William Shakespeare: a lowercase earth will suffice.  When publishing in Rome, plagiarize the best sellers.

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(1) I reviewed “The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary,” Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993.  The unabridged version was not on hand.

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