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Capitulate and recapitulate

Q From Qi Xiao, China: Could you shed light on the utter disconnection between the meanings of capitulate and recapitulate?

A It hadn’t struck me before you wrote, but these verbs, the first meaning to surrender, the second to state again the main points of a matter, strangely seem to have no sense in common. Recapitulate certainly doesn’t mean to surrender again. However, as their forms suggest, both derive from the same Latin word, capitulum, a diminutive of caput, head; capitulum meant a chapter or title, in general the heading of a discourse. Both capitulate and recapitulate came into English within a few years of each other — near the end of the sixteenth century — but their paths have diverged greatly.

The early users of capitulate meant by it much what the Romans did by its progenitor — the verb capitulare that was derived from capitulum — to list by chapters or headings, to enumerate or specify. In English capitulate took on the sense of drawing up articles of agreement or proposing terms, specifically to bargain or parlay to end a military conflict. Shakespeare is the first known user, in the first part of Henry IV. The king says, “Percy, Northumberland, / The archbishop’s grace of York, Douglas, Mortimer, / Capitulate against us.” By this the king means that these individuals were parleying with him. Over the next century, capitulate moved further to suggest concluding an agreement; by the end of the seventeenth century it came to refer in particular to agreeing a surrender, the sense which it still retains.

Recapitulate, on the other hand, has stuck closely to the meaning of its Latin progenitor, actually to a late Latin derivative, the verb recapitulare. This meant to go through a text again, heading by heading. Recapitulate has always had the idea of going over something a second time, usually in a summary or more concise form.

Page created 10 Jan. 2009

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Last modified: 10 January 2009.