They're wonderful. They're obscure. They're often quite pointless.
'Capitol' or 'Capital'?
When one is presented with a pair of words that are similar in appearance, the chance for confusion is always high. In many cases the risk of mixing the words up is lessened if they have semantic differences, as is the case with assent and ascent. The former may be a verb (meaning “to agree”) or a noun (“an act of agreeing”), while the latter is only found as a noun, and has meanings such as “climb,” “an upward slope,” and “progress.”
Things get a bit trickier when there is overlap between similar words, which is why so many people find themselves flummoxed by capitol and capital. Both words are often used in reference to government, and the physical location of one of these is typically found within the other, so this confusion is understandable. We are happy to report that there is a simple way of telling them apart.
Capitol comes from the Latin Capitolium, the name of the temple of Jupiter at Rome on the Capitoline hill. The historical Oxford English Dictionary defines the word’s earliest use in English, dating from the late 14th century, as “The temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, on the Saturnian or Tarpeian (later called Capitoline) Hill at Rome, the smallest of its seven hills.” By the late 17th century the word was being used in the sense of “a building in which a state legislative body meets.” It subsequently took on a small number of additional meanings, including as “a group of buildings in which the functions of state government are carried out” and “the building in which the U.S. Congress meets at Washington” (this use is capitalized). Capitol, however, has not broadened very much in meaning; it almost always is used for a building, and even the term Capitol Hill (“the legislative branch of the U.S. government”) is a reference to a particular structure, the Capitol.
Capital, on the other hand, has a far wider range of meanings and application. This word comes from Latin as well, from caput (meaning “head”), and may function as either an adjective or noun. Among the more common adjectival meanings are “of a letter: of or conforming to the series A, B, C, etc. rather than a, b, c,” “being the seat of government,” “chief in importance or influence,” “punishable by death,” “most serious,” “excellent,” and “of or relating to capital.”
As a noun, it may mean such things as “a city serving as a seat of government,” “a store of useful assets or advantages,” “net worth,” and “advantage, gain.”
Keeping them Separate
As an example of the narrow meaning of capitol, and the breadth of capital, consider the various ways that we might use these two words. We could speak of a group that has invaded a nation’s capital, or that has plundered that nation’s capital possessions, all because someone or other thought this was a capital idea. Some might consider this a capital offense, one that results in capital punishment. Others might say that it is foolish to waste political capital on such an endeavor. There are a number of other ways in which capital might find itself employed in describing something such as this.
The use of capitol, on the other hand, is really only going to come about if the story contains mention of a certain type of building where government functions are carried out, or if it is in reference to where the U.S. Congress meets in Washington.
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