Capital vs. Capitol

Capital/capitol. Boy, this one’s a pain, isn’t it? Because it almost seems–well, unpatriotic or something not to know the difference.

But fear not. Sometimes knowing a word’s origin helps us to remember how it’s used. For me, this is one of those times.

The word capitol comes from the Roman Capitoline Hill (Mons Capitolinus), the highest of the seven hills of Rome, on which the temple for the Capitoline Triad stood. (What? You’ve forgotten the three Roman gods of the Capitoline Triad? For shame!)

The similarity between capitol and capital is ostensibly a coincidence, but I’m guessing it was a malicious attempt by ancient people to make us moderns feel like morons (it’s working, I’m sure you’d agree).

So capitol applies only to the building, just like the temple building, the Capitolium, on Capitoline Hill (Really. I couldn’t make this stuff up.)

Capital refers to the seat of a government and all the other uses of the word.

(In case you’re still not getting it, say the various Roman/Latin words–Capitoline, Capitolium, Capitolinus–aloud. You can’t help but pronounce the long “o.”)

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 18 Sep. 2007.



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