Wood on Words: Capitalizing on the Latin word for ‘head’

Barry Wood

My last word last week was “capitalized,” in the financial sense. The sentence before that one contained the “capitalized” that refers to the use of uppercase letters.

As a reader pointed out in an e-mail this week, there’s also the idiomatic phrase “capitalize on something,” which means “to use something to one’s own advantage or profit.” That one isn’t out of place in the world of high finance, either.

The word “capital” is from the Latin “caput,” for “head.” Its use in “capital punishment” (“death penalty”) refers back to the time when the preferred form was “decapitation.”

On the other hand, “capitation” is “a tax or a fee of so much per head.” So in decapitation and capitation we have those two certainties of life, death and taxes.

Other words beginning with “cap-” that have been traced back to “caput” or similar words for “head” include “captain,” “capsize,” “capricious,” “capitulate” and “cape” (the piece of land kind).

The lineage of “capricious,” meaning “erratic; flighty,” also connects with “caper,” the Latin for “goat.” So to act as frisky as a goat is to “caper.”

This is also the origin of “capriole,” a type of leap in competitive horse jumping, and Capricorn, the 10th sign of the zodiac — naturally, the goat.

According to “American Slang,” “caper” also has been slang for “a prank or stunt” since the 1840s, “a drunken spree” since the 1870s, and “a crime, especially a robbery,” since the 1920s. Oh, those Roaring ’20s, what a colorful time.

By the way, the edible bud “caper” has a different origin. It comes from a Mediterranean bush that’s a member of the genus Capparis — hence, “caper.”

“Capitulate” means “to give up” or, specifically, “to surrender conditionally.” The latter reflects its ancestor, the Late Latin “capitulatus” — “arrange conditions.” That word reflects the expansion of the root idea of “head” to “heading,” or “to draw up in heads or chapters” — thus keeping those conditions for surrender neat and tidy. “Chapter” is another word based on “caput.”

As for the “cape” in places such as Cape Cod and Cape Canaveral, it’s also known as a “promontory” or “headland” — that “head” connection again.

Interestingly, Webster’s history of the other “cape,” the garment, doesn’t mention “caput.” Instead, it stops at “cappa,” Late Latin for “a cape” or “hooded cloak.” I have to think, though, that since the hooded portion would go over the head, there’s some relationship there.

Whether actually related to “caput” or not, “cappa” is also the source for two other things worn on the head, “cap” and “chapeau,” plus “chapel,” “chaplain” and “chaperon” (also spelled “chaperone”).

Finally, I’ll tip my cap to “cap,” a tiny yet versatile word. We have baseball caps, fool’s caps, lens caps, column caps, mushroom caps, tax caps, dental caps, kneecaps, snowcaps and cap guns, to name a few. And let’s hope someone figures out how to cap that leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.

On a happier note, soon it will be “cap and gown” season, when high school and college students celebrate graduation, often the capper of their life in formal education.

Contact Barry Wood atbwood@rrstar.com or read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/woodonwords/.