Thursday, July 4, 2019

Language of Confusion: Whatever The Case May Be, Part V

Happy Fourth of July. It’s part five and, I’m not even kidding, we’re probably only about halfway done. The origin word for container case, the Proto Indo European kap-, has a ridiculous number of descendants.

First, a lot of words with cap in them, which, hey, sounds like kap-. Captive, for example, showed up in the late fourteenth century from the classical Latin captivus, prisoner, from the verb capere, to capture—as we learned last week from the -ceive words. It’s from kap-, which means hold or grasp, which is certainly a good way to capture someone. And that’s how we get capture, captor (Latin for catcher), and captivate, too.

Next, capable, which showed up in the late sixteenth century from the Middle French capable and Late Latin capabilis. That’s from the classical Latin capax, which means capable or capacity, and is from our old friend capere. It’s kind of confusing, but if you have capacity to do something, you’re capable. And speaking of capacity, of course it’s from the same place. It showed up in the early fifteenth century meaning the ability to contain, or just ability. It’s from the sense of the Old French capacité, ability to hold, and classical Latin capacitatem, which just means capacity. I guess if you can mentally grasp something, you have the capacity. While if you don’t, you’re incapable. Fun fact, capacity in the electrical sense is from 1777, with the idea that something can “hold electricity.

Now things are going to get weird. First, caption. It showed up in the late fourteenth century meaning taking or seizure, from the Old French capcion, capture or arrest, and classical Latin captionem, which meant something like trap or catching. That actually makes sense for coming from capere, to take. But then in the mid seventeenth century it started to come at the head of legal documents involving seizing something—like a “certificate of caption”. From there, people started using it to mean the head of any document, even ones not involving capture, then the heading of a chapter/section, and finally, the description below an illustration. And that morphed into us calling it “closed captioning”.

Recuperate is also related to the above—really, it’s closer to receive, though. Recuperate showed up in the sixteenth century, while recuperation showed up a little earlier, in the fifteenth century. Both are from the classical Latin recuperare, to recover, which is related to recipere, the origin word of receive. That word is re- (back) and capare, take, so it’s to take back. Which is also recovering.

Finally today, cable. Yep, really. It showed up in the thirteenth century as a large, strong chain used on a ship, from the Medieval Latin capulum, lasso or rope used on a cow, and that’s from capere. So because a rope is how you hold a cow, it’s a cable for holding things on a ship, and now a wire used for transmitting. Sure, why not?



  1. Closed capturing just wouldn't have the same ring to it.

  2. From case to recuperate - that is quite the stretch.

  3. Amazing how many of these really different words are linked. Language is weird!

  4. So why is it cabling in knitting, then? I suppose because it looks like twining rope.

    Okay, so I found the captioning thing fascinating. And it had never occurred to me to wonder about why a capacitor is called that.


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