Tea Party, or tea party?

An interesting exchange from today's Public Editor column in the Times:

Q: Is there some good reason for capitalizing “tea party?” Is it an officially registered party? Just as both sides of a debate are often given equal importance in your publication (whether deserved or not), this seems to favor a marginal group and gives it more ink than is justified. —Mardine Davis, Manhattan.

A: Uppercasing “Tea Party” isn’t a political judgment, or really even a substantive one—just a style decision, a question of clarity and appearance. In my view, it looks odd and distracting to refer to a lowercase “tea party.” As a common noun, a “tea party” is a gathering where tea is served, or something Alice would attend. And of course, the intended reference is to the Boston Tea Party, which we uppercase as a specific historical event.

Granted, it’s not a formal organization like the Republican Party. But I would think of “Tea Party” as more akin to, say, a nickname than to a generic, common noun. Or you could compare it to an artistic movement—we uppercase “Impressionism,” though it’s not a legal organization or even a proper noun, strictly speaking.

Some other news organizations put Tea Party in quotes, or use phrases like “so-called,” etc. I think uppercasing is the simplest stylistic solution. —Philip B. Corbett, standards editor, the New York Times.

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