Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 75: Separated by a Common History

Paula from Boston wrote to us, asking, "Please explain why recapitulate means to summarize briefly when capitulate means to surrender."

This is a great question; the two words look and sound so similar, it makes their divergent meanings puzzling.

It turns out these words are indeed related; they are siblings on a family tree that has as its root the Latin word caput, meaning head. It's from this same Latin root that we get words like capital, which is where one finds the head of a government.

From the Latin word caput came the Latin noun capitulum meaning "heading, chapter or section" and the verb capitulare, which means "to draw up under separate heads, to arrange in chapters."

That word then spawned the Latin verb recapitulare, which means literally "to restate by heads or chapters; to go over the main points of a thing again."

From this Latin root, we get the English word recapitulate, which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a verb meaning:
"To go over or repeat again, properly in a more concise manner; to give the heads or substance of (what has already been said); to summarize, restate briefly."

Incidentally, the word recap is an informal shortening of the word recapitulate. The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology says the word recap appeared in the 1920s, first in the United States, and then it quickly spread throughout the English-speaking world.

Returning to our main topic, why does the word capitulate seem so far removed from recapitulate?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines capitulate as a verb that means:
"To make terms of surrender; to surrender or yield on stipulated terms, in opposition to surrendering at discretion. The ordinary use; said of a general, force, fortress, town, garrison, etc."

The Barnhart Dictionary of Current English says that this current sense of capitulate first appeared in English in 1689. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the print reference on which Barnhart's assertion may be based: Narcissus Luttrell's A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs, which reads:
"…the duke of Gordon…desired to capitulate."

To find the relationship with recapitulate, we must go further back in history. An interesting aspect of The Oxford English Dictionary is that, when applicable, it provides obsolete and archaic definitions of English words. This proves particularly helpful with capitulate.

The OED lists the first obsolete definition under capitulate as
"to draw up in chapters, or under heads or articles; to specify, enumerate."

That makes complete sense given what we already know about the Latin verb capitulare.

Following its standard format, the Oxford English Dictionary provides a print citation of this use of capitulate from 1593, in The Life and Death of William Longbeard by Thomas Lodge:
"The lawes … which we capitulate at sea are not … used on lande."

The second and third obsolete definitions of capitulate are:
"To draw up articles of agreement; to arrange or propose terms; to treat, bargain, parley."

"To make terms about, agree the terms of; to formulate, arrange for, conclude. To make the subject of negotiation."

Under this third definition, there is another print citation from The Life and Death of William Longbeard:
"A peace lately capitulated betwixt Dagobert, kinge of France and Grimoald."

From these historical examples of negotiating and drawing up terms of agreement or truce, we can see how easily the word capitulate morphed to its current meaning, "to surrender."

Sources: The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, edited by Robert K. Barnhart; Oxford English Dictionary.

Music from this episode: "Coffee and TV" by Blur; "Ashokan Farewell" by Jay Ungar; "Surrender" by Cheap Trick.

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