A Case in Point… or several cases

You’re using your iPad you bought off eBay to check the FedEx site while waiting for your AirTran flight and wondering if you set your TiVo to record iCarly.

So what has this got to do with camels?

Dromedary

Dromedary

Well, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, people used things called pens and pencils in order to record words. I know, pretty freaky, yes? And to make life easier and more legible, there were a few rules that writers (people who used pens to scratch letters on paper) would follow. One special set of rules looked at when you should use letters written in lower case (“abcde…”) or upper case (“ABCDE…). In general, these were pretty simple.

Pen and paper

iPen and iPaper

(a) Use an upper case letter at the beginning of a sentence.
(b) Use an upper case letter at the beginning of a word that named a person or a place.

Apart from a few deviations, these two rules would get you through life with rarely a red ink circle being drawn around a word by your English teacher. Life was simple. It was so simple that even a word processor could handle it.

Alas, the dubious profession of Marketing, a job that is pretty much just a minor variation on “the world’s oldest profession,” decided that in order for companies to become more visible, abandoning these rules would be a minor inconvenience but help sell more stuff.

Back in the 50’s, when movies were huge – and a cup of coffee was just “a cup of coffee,” and didn’t require fluent Italian to place an order, along with the ability to choose from 300 weird and wonderful combinations of milks, flavors, creams, sizes, and temperatures – two companies competed to produce the then-new “widescreen” formats. These were CinemaScope and VistaVision.

CinemaScope

CinemaScope

In an effort to establish a visual image for their brands (that’s marketing speak for “looking different”) they decided to toss an upper case letter in the middle of a word. Oh the humanity! Presumably language mavens, English teachers, and people who wrote letters to the newspapers bemoaning how the country is going to the dogs, all foamed at the mouth, wrote letters to the newspapers, and bemoaned the absence of the ability to blog.

Sadly, no-one else really cared and the camel case world became a reality; words with upper case letters stuck up like a hump in the middle. Technically, this was more of a bactrian camel than a dromedary, but we’ll come back to that. And at this point, it wasn’t called camel case but medial capitals, which sounds much more like a linguistics term than the urbandictionary-ish word, camel case.

Prior to all this, camel case had been the province of Scotsmen and the upper-class English, who could get away with MacDougal, MacDonald, FitzHenry, and StJohn-FfordsSmyth. The English, of course, could always do anything they liked with the language because it was theirs and they certainly wouldn’t stand for Johnny Foreigner lecturing them about what was and wasn’t correct.

By the 70’s, most people in marketing were graduates of the Hippy culture of the 60’s, so the lasting effects of psychedelic drugs meant that they really didn’t care which letters were upper case, where they went in a word, or whether they were even in the right order. CompuServe thought that it would be cool to have the large “S” poking up in the middle of the word like a demented serpent about to bite anyone who felt like complaining, and the anally fiscal folks at MasterCard were presumably saving money by leaving out a space between Master and Card and thus using less ink in their billing statements.

The computer industry worked hand in hand with the marketing industry to ensure that the simple rules for using letters would never again be useful. Although Bill Gates stands out as maybe the one geek who remembered his English lessons and created Microsoft without the need to turn it into a hunchback, software engineers thought otherwise. ClarisWorks, WordPerfect, PageMaker, HyperCard, and so on, littered the shelves with boxes filled with several hundred floppy disks.

Floppy disks

The Good Old Days

Meanwhile, the corporate world brought us ValueJet, BlackBerry, MySpace, WordPress, PayPal, and some of the older companies jumped on the caravan by simply dropping a space, so Radio Shack became RadioShack and Harper Collins Publishing became HarperCollins.

The Age of the Web introduced us all to a new phenomenon: the URL or universal resource locator. Originally, if you wanted to go to a web site, all you needed to know was something called its Internet Protocol (IP) address. Tragically, IP addresses were designed by computer geeks who think only in numbers rather than letters, so such addresses consisted of four groups of numbers.  For example, if you wanted to buy a book from Amazon, you could type in 72.21.214.128.

Catchy and memorable, yes?

Fortunately, the idea for using URLs was more appealing to the world because it used letters instead of number. Remembering www.amazon.com is much easier, and lends itself to creating and remember many more.

But what URLs don’t like are spaces. So imagine you have a business creating custom pens called Pen Island and have this brilliant idea for starting a web site. Because you can’t have spaces, here’s what you get as you url:

http://www.penisland.com

Sharing this on your business card could lead to some confusion , not to mention acute embarrassment and a warning letter from your IT department! However, you CAN use either upper or lower case letters because browsers don’t care. Switching to www.PenIsland.com looks better.

Incidentally, the Italian company Powergen had a similar problem with its now defunct site, http://www.powergenitalia.com/. Go ahead, think about it!

Now look what you’ve done. You’ve created a camelcase address! And using such humping can make an address easier to read, and thus easier to remember.

So again, what has this to do with camels?

These medial capitals are not really camel-like unless you imagine the first capital as the camel’s head, or you consider a camel with two humps – the bactrian. The true camel case arrived when companies began starting a word with a lower case letter followed by an upper case, and then dropping back to lower case again. This is much more camel-like.

Bactrian camel

One hump or two? The bactrian

Computer programmers, who subsequently went on to create computer-based corporations like, say, Apple, Microsoft, Google, etc. at one time used a programming language called PASCAL, and when you wrote your code, you would use Pascal case, which was to use an upper case first letter and other upper case letter to make functions readable. Thus, you might have some code looking like this:

BEGIN { ReadSchedClrArgs }
{ Read the days. }
ReadDay(input, StartDay);
ReadDay(input, EndDay);

IF (StartDay <> BadDay) AND (EndDay <> BadDay) THEN
BEGIN
read(InputHour);
StartHour := MapTo24(InputHour);
read(InputHour);
EndHour := MapTo24(InputHour);
Error := FALSE
END

You can see how there are lots of examples of functions that contain a mix of upper and lower case letters. It’s no surprise that someone who had spent years doing this would then call their company DentalFloss, BigDogBurgers, or EnglishToday.

If you program in C#, Java, or Visual Basic, camel case is the norm when you want to write a parameter, which is just a value that changes. So you might see;

textLength=”a”
typeName=”word”

What this really means is that when Steve Jobs and his orchard of programmers introduced us to the iPod, the camel case was little more than a ripe “full-juiced apple, waxing over-mellow” and there was no stopping the windfall.

Camel case is now used to refer to both forms of medial capitals, so both iPad and SpongeBob SquarePants are camel case, even if the yellow porous one is really two bactrians!

SpongeBob SquarePants

SpongeBob camel case

And one final comment: The jury is still out on whether it’s camel case, camelcase, camelCase, or CamelCase. I’m sticking with camel case just because I like it.

UPDATE: 5/9/14
Eagle-eyed reader, Ed, pointed out that I used the apostrophe in a rather wayward fashion when talking about the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. And by “wayward” I mean “wrong.” I used 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, when it should have been ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. As it’s my policy not to practice revisionism by simple editing the original as if nothing had happened, I’m adding this mea culpa loong after the original post was written. For those who read The Dudes for educational purposes, the apostrophe in ’50s is there to indicate that something is missing; in this case, the 19.

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