Etymology Usage

Should Siri capitalize “God”?

Q: I was dictating a letter on my iPhone the other day and Siri didn’t capitalize “God.” That led me to thinking. Should “God” always be capitalized? (By the way, I dictated this to Siri and she capitalized God the first time but not the second. Interesting.)

A: In modern usage, the term “God” is generally capitalized when it refers to the Supreme Being in a monotheistic religion like Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.

In fact, The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) and other usage guides recommend capitalizing the proper names of deities in both monotheistic and polytheistic religions: “God,” “Allah,” “Jehovah,” “Jesus,” “Shiva,” “Yahweh,” “Jupiter,” and so on.

Many people also capitalize the pronouns that refer to specific deities, but all the usage guides we checked recommend lowercasing these pronouns: “The pilgrims prayed to God that he would bless their journey.”

The term “god” is usually lowercased when it’s used in a general or figurative sense: “My puppy treats me like a god” or “The gods are looking favorably on us.”

And it’s lowercased when part of words like “godchild,” “godfather,” “godsend,” “godly,” and “goddamn.”

Interestingly, the word “God” wasn’t always capitalized when referring to the Supreme Being in Christianity and other monotheistic religions.

It’s lowercased dozens of times, for example, in the Vespasian Psalter, an Anglo-Saxon illuminated manuscript from the eighth century that contains the Book of Psalms and other religious works.

In fact, published references in the Oxford English Dictionary for the use of “God” as a proper name for “the Creator and Ruler of the Universe” indicate that the word wasn’t generally capitalized until the 1500s.

The word “god,” which showed up in Old English in the early 700s, also appeared in Old Frisian and Old Saxon, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Similar terms were common in other Germanic languages: got in Old High German, godh or gudh in Old Icelandic and guth in Gothic. All of these are believed to come from a proto-Germanic root reconstructed roughly as gudan.

Chambers speculates that the ultimate source of the word is an ancient Indo-European root, reconstructed as gheu or ghu, that means invoke, offer sacrifices, or pour.

Why pour? Because one poured libations while worshipping God.

One last point: Some people mistakenly believe that the word “God” is derived from the word “good.”

Although the words have the same spelling in Middle English, Chambers says, “the only association is in terms such as Good Friday, written god friday, in which god has the meaning of holy, sacred.”

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