Q: Why is “realtor” often capitalized? It drives me crazy. It’s just a job description, like “chef” or “dog catcher.” What’s so special about realtors?
A: The term is often capitalized because it’s a registered trademark in the US for a member of the National Association of Realtors.
Most standard dictionaries capitalize the term, including the online Merriam-Webster and American Heritage dictionaries. One notable exception is Oxford Dictionaries online, which lowercases the term in its US version.
The Associated Press Stylebook capitalizes “Realtor,” but recommends using “real estate agent” instead unless “there is a reason to indicate that the individual is a member” of the association.
The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage capitalizes the term too, and says the “preferred generic terms are real estate agent and real estate broker.”
However, the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, lowercases “realtor.”
The OED says it’s a “proprietary name” for a member of the association, but adds, “Also in extended use,” which we take to mean that “realtor” is also used as a general term for anyone who sells real estate.
Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.) has this to say: “Few people seem to know about the trademark, and consequently in AmE [American English] the term is used indiscriminately of real-estate agents generally.”
As for the etymology, Charles N. Chadbourn, a real estate agent in Minneapolis, coined the term in a March 15, 1916, article in the National Real Estate Journal, according to the OED.
Chadbourn, a member of the National Association of Real Estate Boards (predecessor of the National Association of Realtors), proposed “that the National Association adopt and confer upon its members, dealers in realty, the title of realtor (accented on the first syllable).” And don’t misplace the “l”; it’s REAL-ter, not REE-luh-ter.
Interestingly, the term is lowercased there by Chadbourn, as well as in three of the other four examples for the usage in the OED. With language authorities divided over whether to capitalize it or not, the decision is up to you or the style manual you follow.
As for us, we normally use the term “real estate agent” when we refer to someone who sells real estate, whether a member of the association or not. The term “realtor” strikes us as too puffed up.
Sinclair Lewis, whose 1922 novel Babbitt is cited in the OED, apparently felt the same way. Lewis describes George F. Babbitt as “nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay.”
In the OED citation, Babbitt is quoted as saying, “we ought to insist that folks call us ‘realtors’ and not ‘real-estate men.’ Sounds more like a reg’lar profession.”