Capital vs. capitol

The word capitol is a noun primary used for names of government buildings in state capitals and, more specifically, in Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. While capital sounds nearly the same, the word a noun or adjective used for cities acting as seat of government, letters of the alphabet, economy, and more. 

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What is the difference between capitol and capital?

We associate the word capital with several different definitions, such as word title case, locations of central government offices, the act of legally executing people, finances, etc. But the word capitol is much more specific, and so much so that if we understand the word capitol fully–– the rest is easier to tell apart. 

The common use of capitol derives from Capitolium, an ancient location for the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on Capitoline Hill. The temple precedes the full architectural history of Capitoline Hill, which is one of the seven hills in Rome where several ancient Roman buildings stood. Several sources indicate how Capitol Hill, the national capital of the United States, is named after Capitoline Hill. 

In contrast to Capitol Hill, we use the word capital for concepts related to government as well, such as the capital city of a state where members of government meet for official business. With regards to the economy, capital is still a political term and used for concepts involving the production of goods or free-market trade (i.e., capitalism), and extends its reach into topics involving government authority to legally execute criminals.

The confusion behind capital vs. capitol

The primary reason capital and capitol are confusing is because both terms are homophones, which means they look similar in spelling and sound nearly the same. Capital and capitol have different meanings, however, which leads us to the second reason they’re so confusing: each term is used differently to represent topics involving government. 

Capital and capitol each originate from Latin capitalis, with roots capit- or caput for “the head.” Derivations of this word took place throughout Middle English with the help of French and Italian translations, leading us to the wide range of definitions used today. Overall, these derivations are used to describe the “heads” of systems they represent. 

What does capitol mean?

The word capitol is a noun with one primary definition: one or more locations where government officials in the United States carry out legislative purposes. If capitol is capitalized, the word is referencing names of specific buildings within the capital of the United States. An example of such includes the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., where members of the U.S. Congress conduct business. The U.S. capitol is technically located in the city of Capitol Hill, so it’s common to hear either one of these formal names used for the same location in D.C. 

Capital letters

The word capital is used as a noun to represent title case forms of individual letters belonging to the alphabet. When used as an adjective, capital to describe uppercase letters, otherwise known as title case. In this sense, capital is describing the capitalization of letters, which is grammatically enforced for the first word of a sentence, proper nouns, acronyms, or used in writing to stress importance or urgency. For example,

Names of people: Brintey Spears or Joe Doe

A person’s title: Elizabeth I of England or Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge 

Names of specific locations: Mars, Jupiter, Earth or Portland, Oregon

Acronyms: NASA aka National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NYT, for The New York Times

Sentence urgency: “PLEASE HELP!” or “HURRY!”

Unless stated otherwise, proper nouns are names of specific people, places, or things and include titles of writing, artwork, or events. Certain style guides advise against capitalizing every word within a title of a headline, essay, or book–– but this is entirely dependent on the publishing medium in which the guide is used for.

There are other cases within the English language, especially in speech, when one might use capital to stress the importance of a topic. The notion of this is more apparent with examples, such as, 

“She was rude with a capital R.”

In this sense, stating a subject as capitalized proper noun enables an audience to understand how the subject is more prominent on its own. 

Capital city or position belonging to a government

Capital is also used as an adjective and noun to describe or represent the state capital of a state or country. For example,

Sacramento is the capital city of California in the United States.

Luanda is the capital city of Angola, a country found on the western coast of southern Africa.

An exception to this rule is how capital is sometimes used to infer the importance of a centralized area that is not specific to a government. In this sense, one is describing a location as though it held metaphorical importance as equal to a real government. For example,

“Milan is the fashion capital of Italy.”

or

“New Orleans is the jazz capital of the world.”

Death or severe punishment

When carried out by order of government, capital is used as an adjective to describe an execution or a degree of severity in which there are grave consequences. For instance, we might use the term capital punishment to describe a legal death sentence ordered by a judge. In the United States, crimes that are punishable by death are coined as capital felonies, capital crimes, or capital offenses. Such crimes may include murder, crimes against humanity, or kidnapping. 

In this context, the phrase “Off with their heads!” begins to make more sense. We use the term capital in conjunction with legally-sanctioned executions because the term capital stems from the Latin word capitalis, or caput, which means “the head.” So, it makes sense to associate capital with execution, as beheading was the original popular method of the death penalty. 

Sometimes capital is used to describe severe consequences and only insinuate the death penalty in a metaphorical sense. For example, one might describe disloyalty as a “capital error,” but this doesn’t mean one is executed for their lapse of judgment. 

Corporate net worth

Capital is frequently used as an adjective to describe assets that improve the net financial worth of a company or estates, such as stock market shares, properties, or gold. In this sense, one might use the term capital in place of a direct form of money for phrases such as capital investments or capital growth. Let’s take a look at a few sentence examples using capital to describe corporate net worth: 

“One way to improve capital investment is by separating personal assets from the business.”

“The United States Congress refuses to export national capital overseas.” 

In regards to capital net worth, the word capital also exists as a noun on its own. After all, capital is a form of money. As with its adjective form, capital is an accumulation of assets or goods that contribute to one’s income or net worth. The primary difference between capital as an adjective and capital is a noun is how the latter represents the overall stockpile of capital in addition to meaning a source of money used to produce more goods over time. 

The noun form of capital also derives the term capitalist, which is a person with capital or wealth. Additionally, a capitalist is one who favors capitalism, a political, economic system where the market of goods is privately owned and determined by a free market. 

Something great or superior

While it is less common for native English speakers to use, the term capital is used as an adjective to describe something as excellent, superior, or first-class. For example,

“The waiter served a capital meal.”

Capital in architectural lingo

One of the least casual ways to understand the word capital is when it is used as a noun to represent a specific section of a building column. In this context, the capital is the top section of a column, or crowning shaft, a necessary section used to balance the weight of the building resting on top of the column.

FAQ: Related Terms

United States capitol or capital?

When it comes to the United States government, capital and capitol are two of the most confusing words for most English speakers. As mentioned before, the national capital of the United States is the city of Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., but unlike other U.S. state governments with city capitals, Washington D.C. is not a state–– it’s a federal district that was donated by the states of Maryland and Virginia. 

As we can see, differentiating capital from capitol is tricky because no matter how we describe a primary city of any specific government location, we use the term capital. For instance,

Capitol Hill is the national city capital of the United States of America.

The nation’s capital resides in Washington, D.C. 

The United States Capitol is located in Washington, D.C., on Capitol Hill.

Each of the three sentences are examples of how capital and capitol are used differently for the U.S. government, but they also outline the real differences between U.S. capitol and capital. We do not use the word capital to replace the meaning of capitol, but we can use capitol as a replacement for capital when discussing proper locations within Washington, D.C. or state capitol buildings.

What is Capitol Hill?

Capitol Hill, initially known as the City of Washington, developed in 1791 through the Residence Act within the U.S. Constitution to establish a federal location that could be under the jurisdiction of the U.S. While Washington D.C. is not a state, citizens of the U.S. do live in Capitol Hill. In fact, the city remains one of the oldest residential districts in the country. 

The United States Capitol vs. the Capitol Building

If you’re looking for another set of commonly confused words, look no further. The United States Capitol is the name of a government building located in Capitol Hill, but the dome-shaped building is also referred to as the Capitol Building. It is within the chambers of the Capitol Building, where U.S. Congress meets for official government matters. 

What is the United States Congress?

The United States Congress is made up of two groups to form the legislative branch of the nation’s federal government: the Senate (the upper house) and the House of Representatives (the lower house). Members of the House are elected representatives for congressional districts, while members of the Senate are elected to represent individual states in themselves. The term State Legislature is different from Congress because it exists as an acting body within each of the 50 states, although it is modeled after the structure of Congress. 

As of 2019, the U.S. Congress is comprised of several prominent figures we read about in the news every day. For example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the U.S. Representatives for the state of New York’s 14th congressional district, while Elizabeth Warren serves as a U.S. Senator representing the state of Massachusetts. 

Test Yourself!

Do you think you understand the difference between capitol and capital? Put yourself to the test with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. Iowa’s state legislature meets at the Iowa State __________ building in Des Moines, the state’s city __________. 
    a. Capital, capital
    b. Capitol, capital
    c. Capitol, capitol
    d. Capital, capitol
  2. Which of the following subjects is not related to the term capitol? 
    a. The human head
    b. Ancient Rome
    c. Greek mythology
    d. None of the above
  3. Which of the following sentences is grammatically and factually correct? 
    a. The state capitol of Washington D.C. is Capitol Hill. 
    b. Capitol Hill is the state capital of Washington, D.C.
    c. Washington, D.C. is the capital of the United States of America. 
    d. The state capital of Washington, D.C., is the Capitol Building. 
  4. Which of the following subjects is not related to the definition of capital?
    a. Capital One credit cards
    b. Capital cities
    c. Capitalism 
    d. Death penalty 
  5. Which of the following sentences are correctly written with lowercase letters for capital or capitol? 
    a. The Capitol dome was expanded in 1850. 
    b. Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., is not the same as Capitol Hill in Seattle, Washington. 
    c. Thomas Jefferson proposed the design for the Capitol in 1792.
    d. Washington, D.C. is the Capital of the United States. 

Answers

  1. B: Capitol, capital
  2. D: None of the above 
  3. C: Washington, D.C. is the capital of the United States of America. 
  4. A: Capital One credit cards
  5. D: Washington, D.C. is the Capital of the United States. 

Sources

  1. Capital.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  2. Capital.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2019.
  3. Capital.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2019.
  4. Capital Punishment.” National Center for State Courts, Thomson Reuters, 2019. 
  5. Capitol.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  6. Capitol.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2019.

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