Two words, two pasts

What do you call that beautiful domed building in the center of Raleigh? One of our writers called it “the old Capitol building” recently in a story. A reader objected. Raleigh has only one Capitol. The building where the General Assembly meets is called the Legislative Building. The Capitol is “old”: It was built in 1840 and is a National Historic Landmark.

The writer, Ryan Teague Beckwith, defended the description because he wanted to be clear about which building he referred to. I don’t think he needed to say “building” or “old,” but he gave it serious thought and his editors accepted his construction.

I still think “Capitol building” is a redundancy, and I always delete “building” when the copy refers to the Capitol. But what comes up more often is the confusion of capital and capitol.

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The distinction between capital (the city) and capitol (the building) might be easier to remember if you know that the words are derived from different ancient words.

Capital comes from capitalis, a Latin word that means “of the head.” (Capitalis is derived from caput for “head.”) Capitol comes from Capitolium, the temple of Jupiter in Rome, according to the dictionaries I checked.

That’s why it’s redundant to say “Capitol building.” The Capitol is a building. It’s also redundant to write “capital city.” The capital is a city.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.