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Capitulate and recapitulate are etymologically rooted in the Medieval Latin capitulatus, past participle of capitulare ‘to distinguish by heads or chapters,’ from Late Latin capitulum ‘chapter’ (diminutive of caput ‘head’). Capitulate was first used in English in the mid 16th century in the sense ‘parley, draw up terms’, and recapitulate in the late 16th century in the sense of ‘restate, sum up’. In capitulating to the enemy, conditions of surrender were summed up in writing: rather than risk beheading or being drawn and quartered, an agreement was drawn up under headings. Recapitulation has in modern English preserved its 16th century meaning, but also has developed a distinct, related meaning of ‘give new form or expression to’. Capitulate moved to ‘surrender’ simply, and is today commonly used metaphorically.

capitulate (intransitive)

Merriam-Webster distinguishes nicely between various synonyms of capitulate:

“Capitulate” stresses the termination of all resistance and may imply either a coming to terms, as with an adversary, or hopelessness before an irresistible opposing force (“officials capitulated to the demands”).

Examples of capitulate from the academic corpus

The decision went against the Harringtons, but they still refused to capitulate, presumably confident of ducal backing, and the matter was not finally settled until 1475, when Hornby was confirmed to the daughters and hence to the Stanleys.

“The general will against the will of the General.” “To bargain is to capitulate.”  “Run forward comrade, the old world is behind you.” “Freedom is the consciousness of our desires.” “When the last capitalist will be hanged with the guts of the last reformist, humanity will be happy.” [Slogans from 1968 student demonstrations in Paris.] And the agitation worked: workers became realists, initiated the general will, refused to bargain, and ran forward towards freedom.

Concerns about dehydration if the child refuses to drink from any other source keeps these mothers in a state of anxiety and so they capitulate to their child’s demands to continue breastfeeding. [give in, yield]

But there is no sign yet that Iran will be willing to capitulate to Trump’s demands. — David E. Sanger,, “Trump threatens ‘obliteration’ of Iran as sanctions dispute escalates,” 25 June 2019 [via Merriam-Webster’s “Recent Examples on the Web”, accessed July 2019]

You will not find words like skive and naff in most dictionaries (or if you do they will be marked “dialectal” or “colloquial”), though you will find words like scrolloping, which a famous writer used once.  [According to OED, coined by Virginia Woolf in 1923 as an adjective meaning ‘characterized by or possessing heavy, florid, ornament’. According to The Independent also a word used by Edward Fitzgerald in a letter of 1893: “I somehow detest my own scrolloping surname”.]  And apart from certain specialised domains (the lexicon of skateboarding or knitting, for example) you will also find few words whose source is a text written by somebody working class, or black, or for that matter female.  In one sense this is not surprising. Since dictionaries are in fact prescriptive, whatever they may claim, there is no point in their including non-prestige usages and words like fuck which everyone knows the meaning of (though the Oxford English Dictionary did finally capitulate and put fuck in, as a gesture toward inclusive scholarship).

Recapitulate (transitive and intransitive)

Merriam-Webster observes that:

Recapitulation usually involves the gathering of the main ideas in a brief summary. But a recapitulation may be a complete restatement as well.

The examples given below illustrate that while recapitulation may involve reformulation of the author’s own points, when referring to ideas or theories of others the sense may be, oppositely, that of a lack of development, mere repetition.  Related to this last sense is the technical use of the term recapitulate in biology to mean ‘repeat the principal stages or phases of’ another process.

Recap is a 1950s abbreviation, and is used in speaking and informal presentations (“Let me recap”, “To recap what we have argued”). More formal academic texts use the unabbreviated word, ‘recapitulate’.  

Examples of recapitulate from the academic corpus

Since the issue is important to both classical and positivist criminology, I will recapitulate some of the main points here. [re-state, possibly with some reformulation]

To recapitulate:  what Schopenhauer demonstrated is that music differs in character and origin from the other arts because they represent phenomena, while music represents metaphysical reality directly.  [here used intransitively, ‘sum up’]

But cognitive theories’ dominance within psychological discourse induces many feminists to recapitulate these theories, overlooking their subtler gender biases. [‘repeat’ with the sense of not developing.]

The biological aspect of woman-centred psychological theories provides them with some theoretical distinctiveness. But it also tends to recapitulate mainstream psychological theories of gender, which focus on female subjects, sexual and reproductive difference, and reduce questions about gender, finally, to the need to find out the truth about the biologically sexed subject.  Its deterministic view of “femininity” and “masculinity” offers no possibility of combining feminine social concern and caring, and masculine logic and individualism, let alone challenging the gendered distinction they derive from.  [‘repeat, reproduce’, with a similar sense of lack of development as in the previous example.]


Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Lexico Oxford Dictionary
BNC Social Science via Corpus Concordance English


Andrew Goodall

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