Capital and Capitol

A friend asked if I could tell him what the difference is between capital (with an “a”) and capitol (with an “o”). The basic rule is that capitol refers to a government building, while capital refers to everything else. Here are abridged definitions from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition:

capitol
1. a building or complex of buildings in which a state legislature meets 2. (with a capital “c”) the building in Washington, D.C., where the Congress of the United States meets [full definition]
capital
(noun) 1a. a town or city that is the official seat of government; b. a city that is the center of a specific activity or industry, e.g. the financial capital of the world. 2a. wealth in the form of money or property; b. material wealth used or available for use in the production of more wealth; c. human resources considered in terms of their contributions to an economy 3. an asset or advantage 4. a capital letter
(adjective) 1. first and foremost; principal 2. first-rate; excellent 3. relating to or being a seat of government. 4. involving death or calling for the death penalty, e.g. a capital offense 5. of or relating to financial assets [full definition]
(noun, in architecture) the top part of a pillar or column [full definition]
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2 Responses to Capital and Capitol

  1. tag says:

    This is one of those times where your Latin lessons come in handy. The Latin word for head is “capitas.” That is where we get capital punishment, per capita distribution and capital cities.
    The seat of government in ancient Rome was located on the Capitoline Hill. The building located there was referred to as The Capitol. To the ancient Romans this was as natural and distinguishable as our distinction between Washington state and Washington,DC, which are similar but distinct and on oposite sides of the continent.
    So when you talk about the building in either the capital of Washington or the capital in Washington, you call it The Capitol Building.

  2. Thanks for the explanation, Tag! I always love a good etymology lesson.