• capital •
Pronunciation: kæ-pi-têl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Major, large, great, critical, most important. 2. Punishable by death (capital crime). 3. Pertaining to the original investment, the sum invested.
Notes: No Word-of-the-Day series would be complete without an explanation of the differences between capital and capitol. We have chosen capital as our word, for it has the richest set of meanings. Most of the nominal meanings of this word have evolved from phrases with the adjective in it, though, e.g. 'capital (wealth)', 'capital (city)', 'capital (letter)'. But the capitol is the building in which a legislature meets. In all its other meanings, adjective or noun, the word is spelled capital.
In Play: To keep the two spellings straight, remember that the capitol (building) is in the capital (city). Also keep in mind that today's word is at heart an adjective which, as our British readers know, widely used in Britain and elsewhere to indicate excellence: "Go out dancing in the rain? What a capital idea!" By itself, it belongs to the family of exclamations expressing greatest pleasure: "Great!" "Awesome!" "Far out!" "Capital!" It is always a capital idea to deploy a rich mix of such pleasant interjections in our conversations.
Word History: English borrowed today's Good Word from Old French, which revised it from Latin capitalis, the adjective for caput "head". The same PIE word worked its way through the Proto-Germanic languages and emerged in Old English as heafod "head", which in Modern English is head. It came via the same route to German as Haupt "head", found in Hauptmann "captain". The latter entered Ukrainian via Polish as hetman, referring to a leader of the Cossacks. By the way, captain itself goes back to Latin caput.