Capitulate / Recapitulate

Assuming the lights stay on, of course.

Dear Word Detective: While listening to a course on CD during my commute, the instructor kept using sentences like, “Let’s pause a moment and recapitulate what we’ve discussed.” This confused me, as I was pretty sure “to capitulate” meant “to cede, to give up, or to give in.” So, of course, I looked up both words and found that both the lecturer and I were correct. Thanks largely to your work, I know prefixes such as “non-,” ” un-,” ” in-,” ” and “a-” do not always indicate negation. But this is the first I’ve noticed that “re-” doesn’t indicate a repetition. Having gotten over my shock that the English language could contain such inconsistencies, I thought you might be able to shed some light on whether “recapitulate” and “capitulate” share a common root, and whether “re-” words that don’t imply repetition are not uncommon. — Ray.

Ah yes, the commuter school of study. I used to read a gonzo amount of classic literature on the subway when we lived in New York. Of course, the first thing you learn about New York subways is that you’d be crazy to get on the train without a book because (a) even if you’re not actually reading it, it’s safer to look as if you are, and (b) sooner or later the train’s gonna get stuck in a tunnel for three hours and you’re going to be glad you have something to read. I even taught myself a bit of Spanish while riding the train, although about all I remember is “La vía del tren subterráneo es peligrosa.”

It’s true that prefixes in English, which seem like such simple, unambiguous tags, are often tricky little scamps, and “re-” is no exception. In Latin, it carried the senses of both “again” and “back,” and in English it has retained both meanings. So “re-” prepended to a verb (with or without a hyphen) can mean that an action is performed again (as in “re-cleaning” a room), but it can also mean that the effect of a previous action or process is changed or reversed (as in “renegotating” a contract or “refoliating” a dying forest). The good thing about “re-” is that it’s never as perversely deceptive as the “in” in “inflammable,” which many people took to signify “not,” which it doesn’t, which is why we use “nonflammable” today.

The “re” in “recapitulate” does carry the meaning of “again,” but since “recapitulate” means “to sum up material by citing its main points” and not “to surrender over and over again,” some explanation is obviously in order.

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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