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shameless pleading

Capital/Capitol

But they both have lobbies, yuk yuk.

Dear Word Detective: Sometimes the Oxford English Dictionary is about as useful as a cat and not nearly as cute. Perhaps you can do a better job explaining how Latin “caput” (head) split into two words, “capital” and “capitol,” that have given generations of elementary school children and people who rely on word processing spell checkers a bad case of the sweats. — Jackie.

Hey, my cats resent that, and I happen to think the OED is very cute. Of course, I have the special Hello Kitty Edition with large print, bright colors and lots more pictures, so I guess that may make a difference.

But that’s a good question. When you consider how much time and anguish have been expended over the years by people wrestling with “capital” versus “capitol” when talking about Washington, D.C., you begin to suspect it might be easier just to rename that big building full of politicians. Of course, at the rate things are going, in a few years the US Capitol probably will be renamed something like “The KBR Pfizer Verizon Legislative Lounge and Lobbyist’s Buffet” and the issue will be moot.

The ultimate root of both “capital” and “capitol” is, as you note, the Latin “caput,” meaning “head.” “Capitol” with an “o” first appeared in English in the 14th century, derived directly from the Latin word “capitolium” (a derivative of “caput”) which dates all the way back to the Roman Empire. The Capitolium was the most important temple in Imperial Rome, dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus (the patron god of the Roman Empire) and located at the summit of the Capitoline Hill. While Jupiter was definitely the “head deity” in town, the temple took its name from its location at the top, or “head,” of the hill. When “capitol” entered English, it was used both in reference to the original Capitolium in Ancient Rome and, more generally, any citadel, castle, etc., at the “head” of a hill. The use of “capitol” to mean a legislative building is an American invention, most likely tied to our historic fondness for Roman architecture in such buildings. “Capitol” was first applied to the legislative chambers in Washington, D.C., by Thomas Jefferson in 1793.

Compared to the fairly simple history of “capitol,” the form “capital” has been stuck with all the heavy lifting. Its immediate ancestor was the Latin “capitalis,” meaning “of the head,” and the family tree branched far and wide from there, taking “head” both literally and figuratively in the sense of “first” (as in “capital letters,” so called because sentences and names begin with them), “chief” or “most important” (as in “capital cities,” such as Washington, D.C.), or life itself (as in “capital punishment”). “Capital” also took on the sense of “property” (which is the prerequisite of profit) or “wealth,” which begat not only “capitalism” but “chattel” and even “cattle,” which originally referred to any sort of livestock, not just cows.

So “capital” and “capitol” do share a common root, but there has been enough evolution of meaning since then, especially in the case of “capital,” to make them entirely different words.

1 comment to Capital/Capitol

  • So, our Capitol, in MN, is in Saint Paul but, Saint Paul is a capital city?

    Hmmm…funny how typing something, instead of just reading it, can suddenly make things ‘click.’ I guess I knew this but didn’t know I did. I live in Saint Paul and have worked at the Capitol. But I have also written about Saint Paul as a capital city. I guess I’m smarter than I even know!

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