Word Clash: Capitol versus Capital

The Jan. 6 Capitol riots in the capital city of the United States is a big BLOTCH** on American political history. The showcase of partisan politics at its most divided will always be recalled as we celebrate my father’s birthday. “Happy birthday, Dad. Remember when people dressed as vikings stormed the Capitol?” 

Reflecting on this debacle at the capitol building in Washington DC led me to think of another clash that occurs in the arena of English writing: that between “capital” and “capitol”. The clash affects not just non-native English speakers, but we natives, too. I recall myself and fellow journalism students often mistaking the use of the word in our articles, incorrectly referring to the state’s “capital building” rather than its capitol building. 

The clash of these commonly confused words – capitol or capital – is settled peacefully when you can identify that one of the words refer strictly to a building of a particular purpose, while the other side takes on several meanings. 

Let us capitalise on this moment and understand the differences between these two words.

Capitol buildings are in capital cities

“Capitol” is the word that sets off this duel. It refers to “the building in which a legislative body meets”. It is otherwise known as the statehouse; in other countries, it is called parliament. In the United States, the nation’s congressional body meets in Capitol Hill located in Washington DC., the nation’s capital. 

A way to help you (if you are an American reader at least) remember when to use “capitol” is to focus on the o’s: Congress gets nothing done in the Capitol; zero things, a goose egg.

When you have that settled, you can then know that “capital” is the word to use to refer to:

  • A country’s chief city.
  • Uppercase letters.
  • Accumulated goods, net assets, or available money.

This clash’s Latin origins

The metonym for Capitol Hill comes from the Latin Capitolium, the temple of the Roman god Jupiter on Capitoline hill, the smallest of the seven hills in Rome. The ancient Romans thought the Capitolium was indestructible and they used it as an image of eternity. 

The word capital in English shares similar origins as capitol. It is from the Latin capitalis, from capit-, caput, or head. 

**I avoid using all capital letters in any form of writing, but for this specific purpose of emphasis, they will be used.

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