English Is Crazy

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I’m always meeting people who get frustrated by the complexity and apparently irrational nature of English. It drives them a bit crazy. But I take a different perspective. The goofiness and unpredictability of English is what makes it interesting to me. I like spotting and investigating the nutty parts.

And our most recent SAT vocabulary word inspired some of that investigation. We learned (see below) that the word capitulate means “to surrender; to give up.” That would make it easy to define the fairly common word recapitulate, right? Everyone knows that the prefix re– means “again.” So, to recapitulate must mean “to surrender again,” or “to give up for a second time.”

Uh, no. Actually, recapitulate means “to review in a summary way; to summarize briefly”.

Say what? How can two words that seem so obviously related, have such disparate meanings?

They both have the same Latin root: caput, which means “head.” That word evolved into capitulum, which means “title,” “chapter,” or “heading.” That then became a verb meaning “to list or summarize according to headings” and was most often related to contracts or articles of agreement. Interestingly, my man Shakespeare coined the term in Henry IV. He used it to mean “enter into parley.” But the word later became more specifically associated with concluding a formal agreement, and, by the end of the 17th Century, still more specifically to “agree to surrender.” That’s basically what we mean by it now.

Unlike capitulate, recapitulate pretty much stuck to its original meaning: “to review by headings–in a brief, summary way.”

Yeah, English is crazy, but I kind of like it that way.

About the Author

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Merri
    Merri03-16-2011

    Yes indeed, the zaniness of English only adds to its challenge and appeal.
    My grateful thanks for yet another clever lesson.
    ~Merri

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