Search This Blog

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Capita, capital, capitalism

What do capita (as in per capita) and capital (as in capital punishment) have to do with capitalism, wonders a friend in northern MN. Up there it's been really cold--serious double-digits below zero--which gives people lots of time to think up questions like this. His answer: capita is the plural of caput, which mean "head," and capital means wealth. So if you own many coins with the ceasar's head on them, you have much capital. Well, maybe, but it's clearly time to refresh my memory of the history of the words capital and capitalism. "The . . . term, capital, has various senses, meaning punishable by death, principal, a seat of government, and wealth used in an investment. This word derives from the Latin caput, meaning head. It made its way into English from Old French via the Normans."

OED Online: Among its definitions of capital as a noun is the following: "3. A capital stock or fund. a. Commerce. The stock of a company, corporation, or individual with which they enter into business and on which profits or dividends are calculated; in a joint-stock company, it consists of the total sum of the contributions of the shareholders. Also, the general body of capitalists or employers of labour, esp. with regard to its political interests and claims (cf. LABOUR n. 2b). b. Pol. Econ. The accumulated wealth of an individual, company, or community, used as a fund for carrying on fresh production; wealth in any form used to help in producing more wealth. " First instance of use cited: "1611 COTGR., Capital, wealth, worth; a stocke, a man's principall, or chiefe, substance" (= Randle Cotgrave, A dictionarie of the French and English tongues 1611).

It defines capitalism as: "
The condition of possessing capital; the position of a capitalist; a system which favours the existence of capitalists." First use: "1854 THACKERAY Newcomes II. 75 The sense of capitalism sobered and dignified Paul de Florac."

Finally, a small extract from the entry on capitalism in Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, rev. ed (Oxford, 1983), 50-51 (original emphasis):
Capitalism as a word describing a particular economic system began to appear in English from eC19 [early 19th century], and almost simultaneously in French and German. Capitalist as a noun is a bit older . . . [he then cites Thomas Hodgskin's use of it in Labour Defended against the Claims of Capital (1825).] This is clearly the description of an economic system.

The economic sense of capital had been present in English from C17 and in a fully developed form from C18. Chambers Cyclopaedia (1727-51) has 'power given by Parliament to the South-Sea company to increase their cpaital' and definition of 'circulating capital' is in Adam Smith (1776). The word had acquired this specialized meaning from its general sense of 'head' or 'chief': fw [immediate forerunner word] capital, F[rench], capitalis, L[atin], rw [root or ultimately traceable word], caput, L -- head.

More coming soon -- life has been exceptionally hectic in the last week or two with the beginning of the semester, a kitty with diarrhea, and local rezoning issues coming to a head.