Don't lose your head!

May 24, 2015

Capitulate, and its often confusing cousin, recapitulate, sound similar, but have completely different meanings. Why is that and how do we sort out all of this confusion? Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan cracked open the Oxford English Dictionary and other sources to find the answers.

“Capitulate, which for most of us means to give in to something, that you capitulate, is one thing,” Curzan explains. “But recapitulating is not giving in again, it’s to summarize something.”

So why the distinction? The two words are etymologically related and both come in during the Renaissance, Curzan says.

Let's start with capitulate, shall we?

“Capitulate comes into English in the Renaissance along with capitulation,” Curzan says. “And capitulation could mean a couple of things, one of which was listing the main headings of a subject. In other words, you’re organizing something into headings or chapters.”

But capitulate or capitulation can also be used to mean “coming to an agreement.” In fact, one of its early meanings in English is drawing up an agreement or negotiating.

“From there you can start to see how we got to the meaning of capitulate, which was when a town or an army would surrender based on particular conditions or stipulations,” Curzan explains.

Although capitulate can essentially mean “giving in, based on conditions,” recapitulate is related to that meaning of summarizing or organizing into chapters, says Curzan.

Just how often are these words used in today’s culture? Not as much as we used to, says Curzan. Capitulate seems to be on the decline and recapitulate is, for the most part, a highly academic term reserved mainly for academic prose.

But before we capitulate to the rest of our busy day, let’s jump back to the idea of chapters.

“So chapter goes back to the same root in Latin, which would be ‘caput’ or ‘capit’ which is a head. And a chapter, if you think about it, is a heading. It’s a heading in a book; the way you organize the material,” says Curzan.

“Caput” is also related to “capital” in the sense of, “the head of something.” Then there is capital punishment which in the old days meant “off with your head,” and capital letter, which is the big letter at the head of a sentence.

And of course, decapitate … but let's not lose our heads over this.

Michigan Radio Newsroom - Cheyna Roth