Capitulate Versus Recapitulate

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

Mignon Fogarty,
May 15, 2014

Cris asks a great question: Why does the meaning of recapitulate seem so different from the meaning of capitulate? The answer provides a fascinating look at how the meanings of words can change over time.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)capitulate comes from a Latin word that in the 700s meant "to summarize" and in the 1100s meant "to arrange things into chapters." In the 1300s, it meant "to hold an assembly," and by the 1400s, it meant "to stipulate in an agreement." 

Both the OED and the Online Etymology Dictionary agree that in English in the 1500s, people started using capitulate to talk about drawing up terms, conditions, and agreements, and by the 1600s it referred to surrendering because of the relationship to writing up or agreeing 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.


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