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Wednesday, May 23, 2007 02:32 pm

Capital offenses

Give this column to your friends who don’t know their O’s from their A’s

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Untitled Document If you’re the kind of person who solves crossword puzzles with an ink pen, responds with the right questions faster than the contestants on Jeopardy!, and can reach a higher score using a Scrabble board than a bowling ball, today’s column is probably not for you. You, I’m sure, aced AP English, made the dean’s list in college, and own at least one brown tweed jacket with genuine leather patches on the elbows. If that’s you, what I’m about to say should be old hat. You may, however, happen to know someone less enlightened, less brainy, less inclined to sprinkle his or her conversation with quotes from British comedies; someone whose submission to the high-school literary journal may have been rejected. If so, keep reading. You could decide that you want to save this column to share with your less-unfortunate friend. Apparently we’ve got a load of such folk in Springfield. Everywhere you look, they advertise their ignorance. They’re the ones who spell the word “capitol” with an A or the word “capital” with an O. The worst part is, they don’t even know that they’re misspelling anything. They must have been absent that day in third grade when the teacher explained the difference: “Capitol,” with an O, refers only to the building that houses a state legislature or the U.S. Congress. Everything else is “capital,” with an A. “Capital” can refer to financial assets, really cool ideas, the kind of crimes that are punishable by death, and uppercase letters, such as the C in “Capitol” (“Capitol” is often capitalized). What about the city that surrounds a capitol? It falls into the “everything else” category, too. Springfield is the capital of Illinois. Jefferson City is the capital of Missouri. Kabul is the capital of Afghanistan. Oslo is the capital of Norway. Lusaka is the capital of Zambia . . . you get the idea.
There’s a really simple way to remember the difference between “capitol” and “capital”: The one with the O denotes (usually) a building with a dome. The O in “dome” goes with the O in “capitol.” Therefore, technically and grammatically, there’s no such thing as a “capitol city.”
The Springfield phone directory, however, lists almost as many businesses named Capitol City This as it does businesses called Capital City That. The two lists can’t be sorted by profession. An engineering firm, a dental office, and a speakers’ bureau all use the hinky term “Capitol City” in the names of their enterprises. There’s a Gutter Topper outfit listed under both spellings, though the Capital City Gutter Topper company is located not in the capital city but rather in Peoria.
Some of these businesses take on an unintended connotation once you know that “capitol” refers strictly to the domed edifice. Capitol Mortgage Associates would be in charge of financing a historical behemoth; Capitol Retirement Village could provide shuffleboard courts in the Senate chamber. And if Capitol Teletrack lived up to its name, lawmakers would be able to wager on ponies and watch them race on big-screen televisions in the rotunda. The two words — “capitol” and “capital” — spring from the same root but aren’t as closely related as one might think. The word “capital” is derived from the Latin word capitalis, or “of the head,” which makes sense for a city that holds the state government. The term “capitol” goes back to ancient Rome, where the Temple of Jupiter stood on the highest and rockiest of the Seven Hills of Rome. According to legend, workers digging a foundation for the temple unearthed a human head. Consequently, the Latin word for head — caput — became the basis for naming the hill Capitoline. The craggy cliffs surrounding Capitoline made it not only the defensive bastion of Rome but also the death chamber for Roman criminals. The southwestern slope, called Tarpeian Rock, was named after the first person executed there: the Vestal virgin Tarpeia, who ushered attacking soldiers into the city in exchange for their gold bracelets. As punishment for this betrayal, she was flung to her death from a Capitoline cliff to the jagged rocks below. I guess you could say that the decision to call the death penalty “capital punishment” instead of “capitol punishment” was a toss-up. Every rule has an exception, and so does this one. Australia’s Parliament House — the equivalent of our Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. — is located in Canberra. The building, completed in 1988, is built into the hill and covered with grass. It’s topped with an 84-foot flagpole that looks like a metal-frame teepee or a high-tech abstract rendering of a dome. Originally called Capitol Theatre, it’s now called Capital Hill. I’m sure you knew that, but your unenlightened friends might not.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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