Why All Capital Letters For Surnames?

As the title suggests, I’m looking for online references to why you sometimes see a person’s surname written in all capital letters, particularly on official letters?

Is this correct, or just another thing that people are just adopting because they’ve seen it done that way somewhere else?
I’ll appreciate all input on this.

To make it stand out. In the ancient days before word processors, changing font sizes couldn’t be done on most typewriters (and most Selectric users only had one ball). All-Caps or doublestriking was the only way to make something stand out on a typed page.

In my experience, most military orders were done this way to make finding and identifying the names faster. Perhaps it is a leftover from an old War Department style guide from the 1930’s. Not the definitive cite you want but at least a good start point for a detailed search.

The further you go back into history, the more capitalisation you can find, both in the case of full words and with initials. Surnames are just one example…London newspapers fifty years ago would talk about the CHANCELLOR OF THE EXCHEQUOR, and ‘The Queen’ rather than ‘the Queen’. In comparison, ‘the prime minister’ doesn’t get any capitals nowadays in many style guides. Go further back, and you’ll find capitals used for initials of proper nouns, etc.

Also, acronyms lose their capitals once they become familiar - ‘AIDS’ is now ‘Aids’ in most writing, and ‘radar’ made the full progression from capitals to lower case in a few decades.

So I don’t think what the OP is finidng is something particular to surnames, but an example of a more general phenomenon.

Note that in American writing, “AIDS” is still “AIDS”. We’re generally more concervative on acronymns (and capitalization generally, it appears). “Radar” is, as you pointed out, “radar,” however, even in the US.

I’ve also seen capital letters for surnames more often in Europe than the US and thought it eminently sensible. Especially since some names are ordinarily surname first, and commas in reversed names are hard to see.

I know that it’s been adopted as a handy way to tell first names from surnames on business cards, especially if the businessman is Japanese and deals with English speakers. If a Japanese person puts his Anglicized name on a business card, he might occasionally move his family name to the right as a courtesy to his Western associate. This seems sensible, until you realize that there’s no firm convention for how this should be done anymore. Capitalization immediately removes all doubt:

GOTO Dengo
Junichiro KOIZUMI

This way, when receiving a business card, the Westerner can take a quick glance, and immediately say “Ah, thank you, Goto-san. I hope we can work together for our mutual benefit.” …and he can be pretty sure that he has not just called the guy “Mr. Dave”.

I see “Scuba” all the time.

Thanks for all replies.

If anyone else has any online references for quoting purposes it would be greatly appreciated.

Likewise with other languages. Spanish typically uses a double-barreled last name (father’s name/mother’s name). However, sometimes the mother’s name is omitted, and sometimes a middle name can resemble a last name. Capitalizing the father’s name will remove doubt. Also, in many African countries different ethnic groups may have different conventions for the order of family and personal names. Capitalizing the family name sorts this out.

Still, acronyms tend to lose their capital letters fairly quickly in the U.S. In addition to the RADAR and SCUBA examples, you rarely see MODEM, BASIC (the programming language), LASER, and many other tech words written in all caps anymore (not to mention words like SNAFU and FUBAR).

I read police reports almost every day. Apparently, police are trained to fully capitalize the last name of the suspect in their reports every time it occurs; I suppose it helps the reader keep straight whether the officer is referring to M. GONZALES or his wife, M. Gonzales.

Part of the difference here is that “AIDS,” the acronym for the disease, is in all caps to distinguish it from “aids” the word (as in “visual aids,” “study aids,” etc.). In the case of “radar” and other examples mentioned, there’s no other, pre-existing word for it to displace, so there’s no potential for confusion when writing it in lower-case.

Aids still retains a capital A in Britain. And I don’t see why homonyms would be a problem, any more than they are anywhere else in the language.

In some jurisdictions, certain surnames must be rendered in all caps in certain locations on legal documents. This is typically the surnames of the parties to the action, and generally in the captions of documents to be filed.

Is there a reason for this? Are any other diseases, besides those named after people, capitalized?

Good question, and not that I can think of.

Perhaps it’s an intermediate stage, when it’s become familiar enough to no longer warrant all-caps, but not yet enough to be all lower case. The only acronym I can think of that is treated like this, and that isn’t a title or name in itself, is ‘Asbo’ (antisocial behaviour order) - which is also a recent creation.

Another technical reason can be in sorting name lists. First names are almost always like Abcdefg with just one capital, so sort alphabetically simply by their ascii values, but Surnames can be MacAbcdefg or Abcdefg etc. if such names are sorted as is by their ascii values they go MacA…MacZ…Maca…Macz which is undesirable. Surnames sort better if first converted to all upper or all lower case, but rendering a surname in all lower case seems rude and disrespectful, so all upper case gets used. All of this is a somewhat lazy solution to a problem.
For official forms it is probably so that surnames can have optical character recognition methods used on them since an all capital writing of a name is easier to process than one using capitals and lower case especially if it is written cursively.

Often, this is simply because these are form letters generated from a computer system, and many older computer systems may use files with names in all caps. That was pretty common in older computer systems. (The first computer codes I worked with (pre-ASCII) didn’t even have any codes for lower case letters!)

And I still run into older workers who enter data in all upper case, cause that’s the way they’ve always done it. Despite the fact that the computer systems have long since been changed to accept mixed case text input. (Sometimes updating a computer system is easier than changing the user’s behavior!)

I’ve seen this convention mostly on European Union documents and it’s worth pointing out that even if you just stay within Europe you have the Hungarians putting their family names first.

Here, I would’ve said “So, which line number is Dengo?” :smiley:

… and once I get there, “Den” where do I “go”? Ok, Miss Manners, I ain’t.