Q: As much as I dislike the overuse of the phrase, I had a “Wait, what?” moment this morning when I realized that “capitulate” means to yield, so “recapitulate” should mean to yield again, but it doesn’t. How did this happen?
A: When the two words showed up in mid-16th century writing, the usual meaning of “capitulate” was to draw up an agreement or a statement, and the usual sense of “recapitulate” was to summarize the main points of such an understanding.
The two verbs ultimately come from the classical Latin caput (head) and capitulum (little head). In medieval Latin, a capitulum could mean the heading on a major section or chapter of a document, as well as the chapter itself, while capitulare meant to arrange sections of text under separate headings. The Latin usage is the source of our word “chapter.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines this early sense of “capitulate” as to “draw up articles of agreement; to propose terms; to treat, parley, negotiate; to stipulate; to come to terms, to agree. Now archaic.”
The first OED example is from a 16th-century translation of Thucyides’ history of the Peloponnesian War: “They determyned … to capitulate and conferre wyth them touchynge the estate of the cytie.” From Thomas Nicolls’s 1550 translation of the Greek historian’s account of the war between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC.
The dictionary defines the early use of “recapitulate” this way: “To go through or repeat again, usually in a more concise manner; to go over the main points or substance of (an argument, statement, etc.); to summarize, restate briefly.” (A slightly earlier sense, primarily in reference to Jesus, was “to gather or bring together; to sum up or unite in one.”)
The first Oxford example of “recapitulate” in its summarize sense is from The Spider and the Flie, a 1556 allegorical poem by John Heywood about a clash between Protestant spiders and Roman Catholic flies:
“The flie (after a fewe woordes concerninge appeale) doeth brefely recapitulate theffect passed in the principall case.” Heywood, a devoted Catholic who supported the religious beliefs of Queen Mary, dedicated the 556-page illustrated poem to her.
In the early 17th century, “capitulate” came to mean to surrender, a not surprising evolution from its original sense of drawing up an agreement or negotiating terms. The first OED citation is from the official account, ordered by Queen Elizabeth I, of the trial and execution of Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex:
“Hee would not capitulate, but intreat, and made three petitions.” From A Declaration of the Practises & Treasons Attempted and Committed by Robert Late Earle of Essex and His Complices, Against Her Maiestie and Her Kingdoms (1601), by Francis Bacon. Lord Essex was a one-time favorite of Elizabeth and supporter of Bacon.