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Capitalizing on a capital idea

By Curtis Honeycutt

I’m astonished at how often the world of grammar intersects the headlines. Since the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, I’ve seen and heard people confused by both the spelling and the capitalization (seriously, no pun intended) of the word. Let’s dive in.

The words “capital” and “capitol” have unique origins. In fact, “capital” comes the Latin word “capitalis,” which means “head,” as well as “capitale,” which means “wealth.” Here we see why “capital” can mean “money” as well as “the state seat of government.” We also get the meaning of “capital letters” from the Latin word meaning “head.” This makes sense because capital letters stand at the “head” of a word.

When it comes to “capitol,” we get this word from the Temple of Jupiter Capitolium, otherwise known as the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, located on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. This temple was a significant center of Roman religion and culture and was dedicated in the year 509 B.C.E., the same year the Romans overthrew the Etruscan monarchy, establishing a new republican system of government. It is assumed that Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., was named after the Capitoline Hill.

When should we capitalize the word “capitol”? When referring to the building in D.C. where the two bodies of our legislative branch meet, write “Capitol.” According to A.P. style, you should also refer to the buildings where state governments meet: The students toured the Oklahoma Capitol during their class field trip. These are proper nouns, so they receive the capital letter treatment.

So if the buildings, as well as the head of our country’s government, are “capitols,” what is a “capital”? A state’s capital is the city where the state conducts its government business. The term “capital” refers to the city, while “capitol” refers to the building where the government meets. Whatever you do, don’t confuse this with the capitalized Washington Capitals, an NHL hockey team based in Washington, D.C. For a few years in the early 2000s, the Capitals even included the U.S. Capitol dome in their logo. I can’t explain it other than the team’s name is misspelled.

While some stylebooks do not capitalize the “c” in state Capitols (the buildings), the A.P. and New York Times dictate that these important buildings get the capital Capitol treatment. If you are resisting the urge to do otherwise, perhaps it’s time to capitulate.

—Curtis Honeycutt is a syndicated humor columnist. He is the author of Good Grammar is the Life of the Party: Tips for a Wildly Successful Life. Find more at curtishoneycutt.com.

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