Capitulate / Recapitulate

So here goes. The Latin “caput” meant “head,” and its diminutive form “capitulum” (literally “little head”) meant “section heading” or “chapter” of a book or document. (Our word “chapter,” in fact, comes from “capitulum” via Old French, and the use of “heading” to mean the title of a part of a document is semantically drawn from that “little head” sense.) In English in the 16th century, “capitulate” meant, first, to arrange a document in chapters or sections, then to draw up an agreement on specified terms. Over the next century this use narrowed to mean specifically “to draw up a treaty,” and by the late 17th century “capitulate” had acquired its modern meaning of “to surrender.”

Meanwhile, back in the 16th century, our friend “capitulate” in the original sense of “to arrange in chapters” had spawned the form “recapitulate,” meaning “to go over a document again, summarizing it by citing the main points and section headings; to restate briefly,” which is how we use “recapitulate” today. So our modern words “capitulate” and “recapitulate” are indeed very closely related, but their difference in meaning goes way beyond that little “re.”

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2 comments on this post.
  1. laura:

    I enjoy your work. Thanks

  2. David H. Hendon:

    Your discussion of “recapitulate” with “re-” signifying either “again” or “back”, raised a question in my mind. Your examples of “renegotiating” and “refoliating” suggesting the latter idea of suggesting “back” in the sense of changing the state of a condition flummoxed me. I may have a contract that expires. Although, strictly speaking, renegotiating the contract may change the condition of the expired contract, it certainly carries the connotation of reaccomplishing the contract, i.e., doing it again,very possibly with the same terms.
    I can’t help but wonder if the idea or “re-” meaning “back” is not more revealed in words like “reply”, “return”, “respond”, “restore”, “repair” or even “reveal”. They all seem to have far more the sense of “back” than “again”. “Return’s” meaning requires a “turning back”, if not along the same path, at least a reversal of direction.
    You’re the expert, but I wanted to raise the issue.

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