Where We Get the Words Uppercase and Lowercase

Sometimes we call big letters majuscules and little letters minuscules, and the big letters are also called capitals. Did you know the terms uppercase and lowercase come from typesetting?

Mignon Fogarty
1-minute read

uppercase lowercase

The modern alphabet we use comes from the Latin alphabet that was used by the Romans. There are a few differences—they didn’t distinguish between the letters i and j or between the u, v, and w, for example—but at its core, our alphabet is based on theirs. When that alphabet emerged, it only had capital letters—no lowercase letters at all.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Wycliffe Bible was the document to refer to big letters as “capital” letters. The names “uppercase” and “lowercase” came hundreds of year later and reflected the way print shops were organized: Compositors kept their individual pieces of metal type in boxes called cases. The larger letters, the capitals, were stored in an upper case, and the smaller letters (along with the type for punctuation and spaces) were stored in a lower case, and that is why they are called uppercase and lowercase letters. Their names are based on the relative positions of the two boxes, or cases, that are used to store the letters. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.