I lived the first two decades of my life as Ginger Coons. We can talk another time about how I came to have such an implausible name. Right now, I’d like to explain the moment I switched from being Ginger Coons to ginger coons. Or, occasionally, when I get frustrated by the insistence of others on capitalizing my name for me, ginger “all-lower-case, seriously can’t you just get it right?!” coons.
As a child I went to school in both English and French. At a time when teaching the formal rules of grammar wasn’t popular, getting an education in French gave me a chance to explicitly learn things that I might otherwise have learned implicitly. One of the rules in both English and French is that proper nouns — the names of people, specific places (cities, countries) and specific things (named geographic features, landmarks) — get their first letter capitalized. It’s “Toronto,” not “toronto” and “Lake Ontario,” not “lake ontario.” From the time I learned how to write, up until my first year of university, I took that rule entirely for granted. I never questioned the idea that certain places, things and, of course, people’s names, should get special treatment in sentences.
During my first semester of university I took a German class. In German all nouns have their first letter capitalized. It was an eye-opening difference. The idea that what English speakers like me know as common nouns — words like “grass” and “light bulb” — could get equal treatment in a sentence appealed to my egalitarian streak. It sounds hokey, but I don’t believe that I deserve to be assigned extra importance, even in a sentence. That’s why I stopped capitalizing the initial letters in my name. I voluntarily downgraded myself from a proper noun to a common one.
It’s been an interesting shift. Between well-meaning people and error-fixing machines, I spend a lot of time explaining my capitalization choices. About six years ago, I changed my e-mail signature from “ginger coons” to “ginger ‘all-lower-case’ coons.” Without that little prod, the vast majority of my correspondents gave me the courtesy of capital initial letters in their replies.
When it comes to names, our default is convention. Because we default to names as proper nouns, we build that assumption into ourselves and into the systems we build. I often find myself courtesy capitalized by computer-printed labels on mail and other products of machines we delegate to do our formatting for us. It’s a small example, but a powerful one, unthinking technical systems denying their users a choice about the rendering of names.
I’d like to see us break free of some of our more fundamental, automatic constraints. I want to see us become a little more flexible about the kinds of personal expression and decision making we find acceptable, and the ways we enforce individual ability to make or not make those decisions. Names are just one frontier. Let’s see a future where we accept the power of personal decisions to make important statements about the social structures we impose on ourselves, if only to make those structures more visible.
When not building, writing, drawing, editing or holding forth, ginger “all-lower-case” coons is a Ph.D. student in the Critical Making Lab and the Semaphore research cluster in the Faculty of Information at the University of Toronto, studying the movement of born-digital methods to physical production processes through rapid prototyping.