on the word transliterate

transliterate Trans*lit”er*ate, v. t. [Pref. trans- + L. litera, littera letter.] To express or represent in the characters of another alphabet; as, to transliterate Sanskrit words by means of English letters.–A. J. Ellis.

Source: Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary

Every IT worker should know this word, it describes what they do on a daily basis. We must express or represent the characters of the common man’s language in the alphabet of technology. The transliteration is crucial, without it any translation is meaningless.


Just recently, there has been much discussion about email etiquette and whether it is good or bad form to send an email message that has been written in all capital letters. Since there has been so much discussion, I figured I would throw in my two cents on the matter of the “battle of the cases” and the history that lies behind the traditions of lower case email.

A long, long time ago in a place far, far away there was something called a mainframe computer–it had been created by some government people and some university professors. This odd beast took up an entire 30′ x 30′ room and made loud beeps and whirring noises while small guys in white lab coats gawked at it and tried to get it to do something useful. The geeks discovered that the mainframe was very good at adding and subtracting numbers, thousands of times faster than any human being ever could… but this grew boring after just a few minutes. So these eggheads got together and taught the mainframes how to interpret letters as well as numbers, and they were very pleased….

The engineer-types came up with all kinds of uses for the mainframe, it could calculate, it could accept typing, it could even run programs that involved complex instructions and then print out reports. But there was a problem, the mainframe (and the guys who babysat it) grew lonely. So the geniuses who created the first mainframe made another, and another and another so that the first mainframe would have friends to play with and would never be lonely again (this also gained the geeks some friends too).

In order to get the mainframes to talk to each other, they connected them with cables and taught them to speak a special language over the wires. When the mainframes finally were able to chat with each other freely, the first network (called DARPANET) was born and again the taped-up-eyeglasses type guys were well-pleased. But things continued to get better and better for the socially inept programmers… they taught the mainframes to send messages back and forth FOR PEOPLE. Now there was great rejoicing as a new form of communication was born, and it was called Email.

In the heady, early days of email, there was only the ability to send text messages composed of letters, numbers and the symbols available to a typewriter. There was no such thing as boldface or italics or underlining in email. This quickly caused a dilemma in the world of email evangelists. Almost all of the people who could use email were engineers, and it is well-known that engineers are not the swiftest at verbal or written communication, and sometimes the meaning or emphasis of their messages would get lost in the clutter of their mangled grammar and poor word choices.

In order to solve their problems some geeks got together an established some informal standards about email that still stand today…. In their primitive tongue, they reserved the use of ALL CAPITAL LETTERS for things that were VERY IMPORTANT or EXCLAMATORY. In the world of early computing, this was seen viewed as revolutionary. Eventually some super-smart type drew the parallel between email and spoken communication: small letters were equivalent to a soft voice and BIG LETTERS were equal to a BIG SHOUTING VOICE.

And so it went… people gradually accepted this standard and even to this day messages in all capital letters signify things of great importance, the equivalent of shouting your message to the last row of the balcony.

And that Virginia, is why most times is best to send messages in lower case.


While the story above takes a Creationist approach towards this issue, there is also an Evolutionist school of thought on the elimination of mixed letter cases in email messages.

In brief, the Evolutionists believe that lower case email evolved out of the need for poor typists to be able to communicate just as fast as good typists. The slow typists could not keep up with good typists because they always had to look down to find the shift key to make capital letters. As a result they could not survive in the silicon jungle… faster typists always caught the best food and grew strong. But the weak typists learned over time that they too could catch the big game if they played towards their strong suit… lower case letters! These pioneering slackers made a break from the norm and dispensed with the evil of capital letters and found that they now had an edge. By eliminating the extra hassle with the shift key, the small and weak were able to type at the same speed as the big and strong.

Today there are still two classes of typists, but the numbers have greatly changed, the lower cases are in the majority while the mixed cases are on the decline. During the long years of struggle, the true lower cases vowed to never use the shift key, especially not to send an entire message of capital letter… that would be like giving into “the man”, knuckling under, abandoning the ship in a high sea. As a result, even today, a majority of people regard all upper-case emails to be in bad form.