The Grammarphobia Blog

How to capitalize food names

Q: I’m never sure about how food names are capitalized. Is it “Waldorf salad” or “waldorf salad”? “Swiss cheese” or “swiss cheese”? “French fries” or “french fries”? And so on.

A: The one thing we can tell you for sure is that the generic noun in these dishes—the “salad,” the “fries,” and so on—is lowercased.

But should the other part of the name be capitalized if it’s derived from a proper name, like “Waldorf” or “French” or “Caesar”? On that point, dictionaries and usage guides disagree. In some cases, their policies have more holes than swiss cheese.

We’ll start with the argument against capitals, which can be found in The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.):

“Personal, national, or geographical names, and words derived from such names, are often lowercased when used with a nonliteral meaning.” Note that the manual emphasizes the word “nonliteral.”

For example, the editors write, “the cheese known as ‘gruyère’ takes its name from a district in Switzerland but is not necessarily from there; ‘swiss cheese’ (lowercase s) is a cheese that resembles Swiss emmentaler” but doesn’t come from Switzerland.

Thus the manual’s list of terms derived from proper names includes these lowercase examples: “brie,” “brussels sprouts,” “cheddar,” “dutch oven,” “frankfurter,” “french dressing,” “french fries,” “scotch whisky,” “stilton,” and “swiss cheese” (not made in Switzerland).

The Chicago Manual doesn’t specifically mention the salads named for the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the chef Caesar Cardini. We assume from its guidelines that Chicago would recommend “waldorf salad” and “caesar salad.”

The style guide acknowledges that while it prefers to lowercase proper names “in their nonliteral use,” some such names “are capitalized in Webster’s.”

Sure enough, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), like the online Merriam-Webster Unabridged, has entries for both “Waldorf salad” and “Caesar salad.”

M-W Collegiate doesn’t seem as consistent here as the Chicago Manual. For example, the dictionary lowercases “napoleon” (the pastry gets its name from Naples, not from the emperor).

It also lowercases “crêpes suzette” (named after a real Suzette), as well as “brussels sprouts” and “french fries,” but notes that in these cases the parts derived from proper names are “often cap.”

And in one rather baffling entry, the M-W Unabridged has “Baked Alaska,” with “baked Alaska” given as a lesser alternative. (Why the folks at M-W would prefer to capitalize “baked” is beyond us.)

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) leaves us scratching our heads, too. It capitalizes the first term in “Brussels sprouts” and “French toast,” but lowercases “french fries” and “caesar salad.”

Our former employer, the New York Times, recommends in its style guide that “crêpes suzette,” “napoleon” (the pastry), “brussels sprouts,” and “baked alaska” be lowercased. But it capitalizes the first word in “Bavarian cream” and always capitalizes “French” in food names (“French fries,” “French dressing,” “French toast,” etc.).

The conclusion? If you want to be consistent, pick one route or the other: (1) Always capitalize food terms derived from proper names, or (2) lowercase them when there’s no longer a literal connection.

In the end, there’s no right or wrong here. This is a stylistic issue, and if lexicographers can’t agree, the rest of us shouldn’t lose sleep over it. Bon appétit!

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