Head Words

By Maeve Maddox

English has several words that derive from caput, the Latin word for head. Here are just a few.

The words cap, caparison, cape, and capuchin all trace their origin to a garment that was worn over the head.

1. cap
Originally, the word referred to a hood. Unlike a hat, a cap does not have a brim. When a cap does not refer to something worn on a person’s head, it can mean something applied to the top of something. Bottles have caps, as do chimneys.

2. caparison
A fancy covering for a horse is called a caparison. Medieval knights rode caparisoned horses in jousting tournaments. What’s the connection with head? The word comes from Medieval Latin caparo, which was a type of cape worn by old women; part of the cape covered the head.

3. cape
Although now we think of a cape as fastening at the neck and hanging down around the shoulders, older capes included a part that covered the head, hence the name.

4. capuchin
A Capuchin is a friar of the order of St. Francis. Capuchins got the name from the fact that they wore a cape called a capuchin; it included a hood. Capuchin monkeys are so-called because of black hair at the back of their heads; someone thought the patch of hair looks like a hood or cowl.

5. chaperon
The Latin word caparo that gave us caparison also gives us our word chaperon. Originally the chaperon was a cap or hood worn by noblemen, but later it became a garment for women. I suppose that when the fashion was dropped by younger women, the older ones continued to wear them. In time chaperon came to mean an elderly woman who accompanies a young unmarried lady in public to protect her reputation. In current usage, a chaperon is any responsible person, man or woman, young or old, who accompanies younger people in a supervisory capacity.

6. per capita
A legal term relating to inheritance, per capita is used generally to mean “on an individual basis”: The per capital GDP is a measure of the total output of a country that takes the gross domestic product (GDP) and divides it by the number of people in the country. 

7. capital and Capitol
As a noun, capital can mean “the head of a pillar or column,” or “the chief town in a region.” The first Capitol was the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill in Rome. In general usage, the word could mean any citadel on the top of a hill. In American usage, “the Capitol” is the building occupied by the United States Congress in Washington D.C. Similar buildings occupied by state legislatures in the various states are also called Capitols. The state Capitol (building) is located in the state capital (city).

As an adjective, capital means “very important.” In Roman law, “capital punishment” could be death, but it could also be exile and the loss of property and citizenship, things that made life worth living for a Roman. In current usage, a “capital offense” is a crime punishable by death. “Capital punishment” is “death by execution.”

8. capitate, decapitate, capitulate, chapter
An adjective, capitate means “having a head.” In botany and zoology an organ or the long narrow part of an organ is said to be capitate if it has a distinct head-like knob at one end. Decapitate is a verb meaning to separate the head from the body. Chapter comes from the Latin word capitulum, “little head.” A chapter is the main division of a book. Capitulate looks as if it would have something to do with the Latin source of the word for capture, but it too is from caput. Agreements, including terms for a town’s surrender, were written out under headings.

9. capo, captain, chief, chef
The leader of a branch of the Mafia is a capo, Italian for head. The Italian word comes from good old caput. A captain is the head of whatever group is being led. Both chief and chef also descend from caput; both words translate literally as head. In heraldry, the chief is the top of the shield. Among people, the chief occupies the head position.

Chief entered English from French in the 14th century with the meaning head, as in leader; its cognate chef followed in the 19th century with the meaning, “head cook.”

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4 Responses to “Head Words”

  • Michael N. Marcus

    cabbage

  • Charles Higginson

    “Capo” also has a less sinister meaning in music. Short for capotasto, Italian for “head of fretboard,” it’s a device used on the neck of a stringed (typically fretted) instrument to shorten the playable length of the strings, hence raising the pitch.
    More: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capo

  • Maeve

    Charles,
    I used to play flute in a community band. I always got confused when we had a “de capo” ending.

  • Jeremy Marchant

    “Da capo” surely. Literally, back to the head, as in “top”, as in “from the top”.

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