Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Capital Ideas

There is a difference between Customs and customs. I alluded to this in my last post, so I may as well get it on the record.

The word "customs," in the context of duties and tariffs, refers to the money collected by a government agency upon the importation of merchandise. One online law dictionary gives the following definition:

CUSTOMS. This term is usually applied to those taxes which are payable upon goods and merchandise imported or exported.

So, when referring to the general notion of money paid as an import duty, we talk about "customs." Usually, it is modified to something like "customs duties," customs laws," or "customs regulations."

The agency now known as the Bureau of Customs & Border Protection is known by the short hand name of "Customs." So, Customs collects customs pursuant to the customs laws and regulations.

The place where this transaction takes place is a customhouse, which is often misspelled customshouse. The same dictionary uses a hyphen I have never seen and gives the following definition:

CUSTOM-HOUSE. A place appointed by law, in ports of entry, where importers of goods, wares and merchandise are bound to enter the same, in order to pay or secure the duties or customs due to the government.

Customs has traditionally used some strange exceptions to permit the spelling as two words (i.e., Custom House"). Here is what they have to say:

The word "customhouse" means the building or the office where customs duties and other charges are paid, and is the central place where most of the Customs work and transactions are performed and where all moneys, of every nature and wherever collected, are accounted for. The customhouse is the office of the Collector of Customs, and, at certain Customs ports and stations, of some or all of the other Customs officers and personnel. The word "customhouse" has frequently been misspelled on Customs buildings, on directories of federal buildings, in correspondence, and in magazines and newspapers. It has also been mispronounced in conversation. The official spelling in correspondence text is as one word, i.e., "customhouse." However, in an address, or on a building, tacit approval apparently has been given to "521 Custom House" or "CUSTOM HOUSE," as two words, to indicate the Customs building or room in such a building. The word is never properly spelled as "customshouse" or "Customs House."

The other question is the use of apostrophes. Is it correct to say "Customs' vehicles," or "Customs' position" when referring to the agency in the possessive sense? Customs has also issued an answer to that question:

And . . . never use an apostrophe after "Customs" or "U.S. Customs" when followed by a noun modifier . . . as in "Customs duties."

This one, I just don't follow. I don't see any reason not to apply the normal English rules of grammar on this point.

Happily, all the quoted material referenced above comes from 1939. Maybe there has been some softening on that front.

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