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Capital or Capitol?

Image result for capitol building
The United States Capitol Building, Capitol Hill, Washington, DC.

A common typo, particularly among Americans, comes from confusing capital and capitol.  It’s an easy mistake to make, since both words mean something similar, and both are pronounced exactly the same.  But there’s a crucial difference, and one that means more in America than it does in other English-speaking countries.

The word capital is an indirect descendant of the Latin word caput, which means head.  Its descent from Latin is indirect because it came to English, like so many words, from French.  Capitale was an Old French word that entered English sometime around the 13th century.  Its original meaning was “pertaining to the head”.  By the 15th century, the word had taken on the meaning “of chief importance”, and by the 18th century it came to mean “first rate” or “excellent”.  Around the early 16th century, the term capital crime came into use, meaning basically what it means today: a “deadly” or “mortal” crime.  The “head” connection was not new to English, either—in Old English the word heafodgilt meant something like “crime of the head”, suggesting something that is first among crimes.  All that changed was the adoption of this new, flashy French word.

As a noun, capital came to mean a capital letter in the early 15th century, so called simply because it was the first letter of a sentence.  Capital to refer to the city that serves as the seat of government wasn’t recorded in English until the middle of the 17th century.  Again, using a word referring to the head for this purpose was not a new concept to English.  In Old English, the word was heafodstol, and hevedburgh in Middle English.  (For the record, what’s considered Modern English covers the language since the late 15th century.  Many modern English speakers don’t recognize the words of William Shakespeare as being written in Modern English, but the language from 200 years before Shakespeare’s day was a heck of a lot more different from the language from 200 years after Shakespeare’s day!)

Capitol, on the other hand, is a direct descendant from Latin.  The word capitol is a direct reference to the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in ancient Rome.  Jupiter, king of the gods, was also the protector of the city of Rome.  His temple was located on Capitoline Hill.  Certain important assemblies met near the temple, called the Area Capitolina, though it was not where the seat of the Roman government was located.  It’s in reference to the Temple of Jupiter that the seat of Virginia state houses referred to themselves during colonial times.  The first reference to this capitol dates from 1699.  Even today, the Virginia state house was designed to resemble the Temple of Jupiter.  This was a common motif in colonial America and post-revolutionary America.  Many buildings were designed to look like the Temple of Jupiter, like the US Treasury building in Washington, as well as many federal buildings and banks around the country.
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Rome's Area Capitolina, around the second century CE (photo not available).  Note the Temple of Jupiter on the hill.


Today, the word capitol is used to refer to the building where a state government meets, or to Capitol Hill, where the federal government meets.  Capital is still the generic word for the city or area where the seat of government of a state or a country is located.  A linguistic connection between capital and capitol is suspected, but there is no evidence that the two words are actually related.

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