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'Capitulate' Versus 'Recapitulate'

Why do "capitulate" and "recapitulate" seem to have such different meanings? Etymology to the rescue!

By
Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #651
A white flag representing capitulation

A listener named Cris asked why “capitulate” means “to give up,” but “recapitulate” means to summarize. What a great question! Why does the meaning of “recapitulate” (“to summarize”) seem so different from the meaning of “capitulate” (“to surrender”) when the only difference seems to be the “re-” prefix? The answer gives us a fascinating look at how the meanings of words can change over time.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “capitulate” actually does come from a Latin word that in the 700s meant "to summarize.” In an extension of that meaning, by the 1100s it meant "to arrange things into chapters." And in fact, the same Latin word also gives us the English word “chapter.” 

Somehow arranging things into chapters led to another extension of the meaning to “arrange conditions.” In the 1300s, “capitulate” meant "to hold an assembly," and by the 1400s, it meant "to stipulate in an agreement." 

Then, in the 1500s, “capitulate” and “recapitulate” both entered English, and the OED and the Online Etymology Dictionary agree that at that time people started using “capitulate” to talk about drawing up terms, conditions, and agreements, and by the 1600s it referred to surrendering because when you surrender, you usually write up or agree to terms of surrender.

“Recapitulate” didn't go through the same evolution and kept closer to the earlier "summarize" meaning with the “re-“ prefix adding a sense of going through something a second time to make the summary.

It’s an especially interesting example of language change and how meanings can evolve and diverge—how two very closely related words started out with the same meaning and eventually came to mean things that are quite different. But if you follow it step by step through the centuries, you can see the logic of what looks incomprehensible when you’re just looking at the end result.

Thanks for the question, Cris.

Examples of ‘Capitulate’

I’m ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions. —Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance

Margaret, if you had seen the man who thus capitulated for his safety, your surprise would have been boundless. —Mary Shelley, “Frankenstein

Examples of ‘Recapitulate’

It is said that in breathing, man recapitulates the rhythm of the universe. —W. Timothy Gallwey, “The Inner Game of Tennis

Law is not as disinterested as our concepts of law pretend; law serves power; law in large measure is a recapitulation of the status quo; it confirms a rigid order designed to insulate the beneficiaries of the status quo from the disturbances of change. —William Sloane Coffin, “Credo

Then the Yogi suddenly fell silent, and when I looked puzzled he shrugged and said: “Don’t you see yourself where the fault lies?” But I could not see it. At this point, he recapitulated with astonishing exactness everything he had learned from me by this questioning. —Hermann Hesse, “The Glass Bead Game

Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

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