I am puzzled by the the use of the word in the sense of the phrase "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny". The meaning is taken to be 're-enacts' or 're-creates'. It's entirely different from what I would expect based on the common usage of capitulate. One would think something that recapitulates has surrendered a second time.

  • You can start by looking them both up on etymology online. Recapitulate means to capitulate again, but capitulate is used in a special way, that gives it its meaning of surrender. – pazzo Mar 5 '15 at 14:50

Here's Etymonline's origin of recapitulate:

late 14c., "a summarizing," from Old French recapitulacion (13c.), from Late Latin recapitulationem (nominative recapitulatio), noun of action from past participle stem of recapitulare "go over the main points of a thing again," literally "restate by heads or chapters," from re- "again" (see re-) + capitulum "main part" (see chapter).

Capitulate comes from the same chapter root word:

1530s, "an agreement," from Middle French capitulation, noun of action from capituler "agree on specified terms," from Medieval Latin capitulare "to draw up in heads or chapters, arrange conditions," from capitulum "chapter," in classical Latin "heading," literally "a little head," diminutive of caput (genitive capitis) "head" (see capitulum). Meaning narrowed by mid-17c. to "make terms of surrender."

So although the two words have a common root word, their meanings were vastly different from the start. This is fairly common; for example, pathologist (someone who studies diseases) and pathetic (arousing pity) both come from the same root word, pathos.


I quote the following which contrasts 'capitulate' vs 'recapitulate' and their etymologies. To improve formatting and ease of readability, I edit it lightly and eschew blockquotes >.

Source: by user 'Capital Kiwi', dated 01/22/02

And, yes, as both Bill and Faldage have stated, capitulare means to draw up chapter headings.

The explanation I found[,] went along the lines of it being used by Roman or later empires' officers to refer to the actual document which contained the heads of agreement for a surrender. Originally the capitulation wasn't the actual surrender. The capitulation was the agreement to do so on terms, written or not. But the meaning kept sliding. Although, if you stop to think about it, capitulation is usually used to refer to a "graceful" surrender. Words like "rout", "defeat", "overthrow", etc., are used for the success of the use of main force without negotiation.

Gradually, this usage became the main one.

Recapitulate, on the other hand, underwent no such transformation in meaning. Its meaning remained as "to summarise what went before". I remember an English lecturer once stating that his lesson plan overhead foil, which contained the points he was going to cover, was a "precapitulation"!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.