The Ongoing Debate
There is a debate that crops up among LARPers from time to time. I find I often cannot resist getting involved in these conversations, because the topic involves two of my personal passions, LARPing and linguistics.
The subject of said debates: the orthographic styling of the word LARP. Should it be written in all capitalized letters, or all lowercase letters?
You can already deduce, of course, on which side of this debate I fall.
Actually, both sides can be considered correct, by virtue of both forms being commonly used. (Which I realize sounds like a cop-out, kumbaya sort of answer.) Language is defined by common use, and it’s successful so long as communication is achieved. That is to say, what words mean, how to pronounce and write them, and how to use them shifts over time and changes as languages spread (or recede) from location to location. Languages are living things that constantly evolve. Things that used to be correct become incorrect as they fall out of use, and incorrect things become correct by virtue of becoming common. What is or isn’t part of a language is determined by the population of speakers of that language. Editing the dictionary is an exercise in trying to keep up with and describe the trends of a language as it evolves, not trying to dictate the various elements of a language.
This capitalization argument is not unlike arguing over whether it’s correct to spell the color one gets when mixing black paint and white paint “grey” or “gray.” There are different communities which display tendencies to favor one spelling over the other, but they are both common enough to be correct, and communication will be achieved either way.
But one can still make an informed decision about which form to use, especially for use in formal contexts, such as academia or journalism.
The word LARP is, of course, an acronym, a word formed by taking the initial components from a series of words (and/or individual syllables within the words) and combining them to form a new word. Specifically, as all LARPers know, it stands for “Live Action Role Play”.
I’ve heard, or read, at various points, people saying things like “‘LARP’ is no longer an acronym; it’s a word, so it should be written in lowercase.” This sort of statement is incorrect on multiple grounds — acronyms are a type of word, not some sort of separate category of things that one might imagine becoming a word the way Pinocchio becomes a real boy. And whether something is written in all capitals or all lowercase does not mean it is no longer an acronym, or change its category as a word. Once a word is created as an acronym, it always will be one, regardless of how you write (or pronounce) it.¹
There are two ways we could approach the question of whether one should write LARP in all capital letters or lowercase. The first is to determine the properties of the word LARP, and determine what common patterns, if any, there are in which acronyms are capitalized. The second is to look at which version is more commonly used.
The First Approach: Identifying Patterns in Acronyms
The first approach to the LARP vs. larp question is to try and identify the properties of the word LARP, then look at other words that share those properties and see if any correlate to a relevant pattern among acronyms. Obviously, people have noticed that some acronyms are capitalized when they are first coined and morph into the lowercase form over time, as they become more commonplace (radar, laser, and scuba being the most commonly cited examples). But the process is more complex than this. At what point is a word considered common? How old is the average acronym that has made the change from all capital to all lowercase letters? Are there features of an acronym that may speed up, slow, or entirely prevent this process? And are there other alternative orthographic features that may apply?
There are a variety of properties one could look when analyzing the word LARP. It has morphological properties, syntactic properties, phonological properties, semantic properties, sociological properties. We know its origin — it’s an acronym, but there are many forms of acronyms. Some take the first two letters of the words. Or more. Or the first two letters of some and one of the others. Or the onset of the first syllables of the word, or the onset plus the nucleus of the syllable, or the onset of all of the syllables in some of the words, or some combinations of those elements… It gets complex, and we’re still just talking about English acronyms. LARP uses one of the more basic acronym structures — the first letter of each word. (Though we could muddy those waters by pointing out that role play is sometimes written as one word, roleplay, and sometimes written with a hyphen: role-play.)
We know the phonological properties of the word LARP (e.g., it is one syllable, with an onset and coda, and it’s pronounced /lɑːrp/), which tells us it is not an initialism — a type of acronym pronounced like a string of letters.² It’s not trademarked, it is not a proper noun, and it is not spelled identically to a non-acronym word (like PIN or AIDS), all of which are features that seem to prevent the shift to lowercase. Of its syntactic properties, we know it can be used as a noun, as in “I attended a LARP”, or a verb, “who is going to LARP this weekend?” and, more specifically, it seems to be an intransitive verb. Morphologically, the word LARP can take affixes, e.g. LARPs, LARPer, LARPing and LARPed.
Those are the more concrete, readily identifiable properties of the word. Of these, few correspond to any specific trends in acronyms. Some people follow the rule that acronyms of four letters and under are written in all capital letters, which, of course, applies to the word LARP. (The New York Times subscribes to this rule.) Another rule of acronyms dictates that acronyms that readily take affixes be expressed in mixed case, meaning the acronym root remains in uppercase, while the affixes take lowercase. LARP, as mentioned above, very commonly takes a number of suffixes, which is why we frequently see the word describing people who LARP written as “LARPers” and not “larpers” or “LARPERS”.
Despite my research into acronyms, I have thus far come up with little to nothing concrete regarding the transition of particularly common acronyms that have gone from being written in all capital letters to being written exclusively in lowercase. I’ve seen the well known examples of scuba, laser, and radar come up repeatedly, but virtually no others. (Taser might qualify, but it is a trademarked term, and therefore hard to extrapolate grammatical patterns from it, as its use is heavily influenced by the owner of the trademark.)
What might we deduce from these three examples? All three were coined sometime from the 1940s to the 1960s. All three are listed as nouns in the dictionary. Scuba, curiously, is also listed as a verb, though I’ve never heard scuba used as a verb, only as a modifier for the verb dive. I’ve never heard anyone, even while on scuba dives, say “scubaed” or “scubaing” (it’s always “scuba diving” and “went scuba diving”) though both forms appear in the dictionary. By contrast, I have heard laser used as a verb, as in “to laser off a tattoo,” though this form is not listed in the dictionary. So none of these examples offer any concrete morphological or syntactic patterns, though scuba comes the closest in its ability to (according to the dictionary) act as a noun and verb and take suffixes commonly affixed to nouns and verbs, the way LARP does. Some sources suggest the etymology of these words have largely faded from common knowledge, which contributed to their shifts in case. (Personally, I knew what scuba stands for before I began working on this post, but I had to look up what laser and radar stand for.) By contrast, the etymology of LARP is still very much common knowledge to all those who frequently use the word.
Though several sources referenced the trend that very common, or “bona fide” words make the shift from lowercase to uppercase, there are few examples to back it up, and what makes a word “bona fide” is not defined. Even if we take this as true, becoming a “bona fide” word is necessary, but not sufficient, grounds for the word shifting to lowercase. For the small handful of terms that have made the shift, there are others (such as AWOL and SIDS) that have not, despite having histories that are just as long (or decades longer) and having undoubtedly entered common usage.
The Second Approach: Looking at Common Use
First, we have to decide what parameters we’re looking at for common use. Do we mean what we personally commonly read? What is most commonly used in our local communities of the particular form of LARP we most often engage with? What is most common in our local community across all LARP forms? Most commonly used in our LARP form worldwide? Most common in our state, region, country, continent? Most common among all LARPers around the world? (If you’re interested in how dictionaries analyze common use of words, you might start by reading how the Merriam Webster editors decide on changes to their dictionary.)
When I was determining which form of the word LARP to use, I categorized the bulk of instances in which I read the word LARP into two groups. The first group is online conversations that are intended for use by any and all LARPers (such as Facebook LARP groups or the LARP subforum on rpg.net), along with blog posts and online articles written for general consumption. The second group consists of websites for LARPs and LARP events which I attend or help run, which are designed for and almost exclusively used by only the LARPers who actively participate in those particular LARPs and events, whether as staff/GMs, PCs, or NPCs.
In the latter category, it’s fairly straightforward. I use the uppercase form of LARP for the same reason I typically spell “theater” with er at the end, rather than re. As an American, it’s the form I most commonly see, and is most commonly used by the communities of speakers I identify with. Intercon, along with two small LARP conventions³, and three other general geek cons that host LARPs⁴ all use the capitalized forms for content that generated by convention staffs. NELCO, the first LARP conference in the US, also uses the uppercase form, with one exception — for clarity when explaining what NELCO stands for. Which is why you find both forms in a single sentence, “[t]he New England Larp Conference is a multi-tradition event focused on the craft of LARP.” (An example of a “nested acronym” — an acronym within an acronym.) Only one small convention (WPI’s SLAW) used the lowercase form, and one event’s website contained no use of the word LARP.
In website content submitted by individual GMs running LARPs at the various events (and not the staff), the lowercase form does appear, but the uppercase form is somewhat more common. (This primarily takes the form of GM bios and event blurbs.) Websites for other events that I have yet to attend but still check from time to time, like Consequences in the UK, also use the capitalized form, though Chimera in New Zealand uses the lowercase form. (On Diatribe, a forum for New Zealand LARPers, the lowercase form seems more common at a glance than the capitalized form.)
Three out of the four websites for the various Accelerant boffer LARPs for which I either PC or NPC, use the capitalized form. Interestingly, the only exception, Shadows of Amun is the first example I have run across that uses both forms, but primarily uses the uppercase for when using LARP as a noun, and lowercase when using it as a verb.
Of course, it comes as no surprise that these two groups exhibit significant trends. They are heavily interconnected, not just in the overlapping populations. Many of the people who attend NELCO and the various local theater events, also attend Intercon, and in some ways, Intercon serves as an example for modeling LARP events and website structures. Other con staffs may have imitated aspects of Intercon’s website text, possibly even by copying and pasting some of it. (Specifically, Consequences has some text in their FAQ that mirrors some of the text in Intercon’s FAQ.) And of course, local LARPers frequently PC and NPC for one another’s Accelerant games. (This is one of the major advantages of using a common rule system.) Madrigal, it is worth noting, seems to serve as a primary source for rules documents for other local Accelerant LARPs, which may be the reason the local Accelerant community seems to strongly favor the capitalized form.
When deciding which form to use, I decided to look to the local communities I most strongly identify with, the primarily theater community I think of as the “Intercon community”, and the boffer community I think of as the “Accelerant community”. They both are created from an overlap of communities of place (the Northeastern United States) and communities of interest (one shot theater LARPs and campaign boffer LARPs.) The existence of the communities is also reflected in shared LARP-related slang, terminology, memes, and tropes. Much jargon is specific to these individual linguistic communities and may not be understood in others (eg. “Dead Dog”, “crunching”, “blue sheets”, etc. )
Like any community, the borders may be very fuzzy; the point is, these communities and sub-communities are meaningful constructs, and my personal identity of a LARPer is strongly influenced by them. Hence my choice to use the capitalized form is a reflection of my membership in these two communities. But other LARPers may feel a strong connection to all LARPing within their region, or national borders, or all LARPing of a certain structure or genre all over the world. In which case, their choice to use the capitalized or lowercase form may be tied up in the trends of those sub-groups of LARPers.
Alternatively, I might look to various mainstream publications and other forms of media use the word LARP. I have heard people claim that the dictionary uses the lowercase form. Out of curiosity, I searched a few dictionaries online. The Oxford dictionary and the Collins dictionary both use the capitalized form, while the Oxford English dictionary has the entry under the capitalized form, but includes the lowercase form as an alternative. Merriam Webster has a slang/new words entry with the capitalized form, but uses the lowercase form for “larper”. The Online Slang dictionary uses the capitalized form. Urban Dictionary also contains a slew of entries, the most popular of which is the capitalized form. Wikipedia also uses the capitalized form for its entry on LARPs. I haven’t yet found a lexical resource that prefers or exclusively uses the lowercase form.
I also checked a number of movies featuring LARPing to see which forms their productions favored. Knights of Badassdom used the capitalized form, as did Monster Camp. (Role Models seems to have avoided the term altogether.)
I understand the desire for some to make LARP seem less alien to audiences unfamiliar with it, more mainstream, or perhaps even easier to read, even though I personally don’t find the lowercase form to feel any more accessible, or easier to read. In casual contexts, if people want to give a certain impression of this medium (or hobby, or artform, or whatever you want to call it), that is certainly their prerogative, but I prefer to approach this issue from a descriptive angle, not a prescriptive angle. I want to write this word in a way consistent with my knowledge of linguistics, not the way we might like the word to be written to reflect attributes we wish LARP had.
But who knows. Like I said, language is a living thing, and it’s constantly evolving over time. Maybe in ten years, the lowercase form of the word LARP will have become sufficiently more prevalent, and I’ll be seeing it replace the capitalized form in various media. But until then, I remain a LARPer, not a larper.
¹ There is a phenomenon known as “orphan acronyms” in which a company decides an acronym no longer stands for anything, such as the fast food chain deciding KFC no longer stands for Kentucky Fried Chicken, but this only applies to only trademarked items, and it still doesn’t change the origin of the acronym, nor erase it from the public’s minds.
² Some people classify initialisms as a type of acronym; some people classify them as two separate categories.
⁴ Gen Con, Arisia, and Origins