capital / capitol

The words capitol and capital seem to be very similar, but they are from different Latin roots.

The more general term, capital, has various senses, meaning punishable by death, principal, a seat of government, and wealth used in an investment. It first appears in Middle English in the 13th century and comes, via Old French, from the Latin capit?lus. The Latin root, caput, means head or money paid out. (This Latin root is unrelated to the German kaputt, meaning broken.)

Its counterpart, Capitol, first appears in 1375 and is a reference to the temple of Jupiter built on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. (Also known as the Tarpeian Hill.) From Chaucer’s The Monk’s Tale, c.1386:

This Iulius to the capitolie went.
(This Julius went to the capitol.)

Or, from Milton’s Paradise Regained, 1671:

There the Capitol thou seest...On the Tarpeian rock.

The word pretty much remained a proper reference to the Roman locale into the 17th century, when it began to be used more generally to temples and similar edifices. From William Drummond’s Poems, c.1630:

The spot-less sp’rits of light...Greet their great victor in his capitol.

At the tail end of the 17th century, the American colonists began to use capitol in reference the buildings housing the colonial legislatures, in a way temples to the democratic ideal. In 1699 the Virginia Assembly passed:

An Act directing the Building the Capitol and the City of Williamsburgh.

In 1793, construction began on the US Capitol on what was then called Jenkins’ Hill and would become known as Capitol Hill. The building’s original design was by William Thornton, a Scottish physician living in the West Indies. Then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson refers to it in a 1793 letter:

Doctor Thornton’s plan of a capitol.

In Latin, the words caput and Capitoline may be distantly related, but their origins are obscure.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition; photo courtesy Architect of the Capitol)

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