The riot in Washington, D.C. last week prompted many to choose between capital or capitol, and in some cases, they chose incorrectly.
How do you know whether to select capital or capitol when you’re talking about Wednesday’s riot? The real challenge with this pair of words is that both can be correct, depending on what you’re saying.
The two words appear identical except for one single letter. But we see example after example of words in which a single letter can make a big difference.
Here’s a few examples of headlines from last week’s violence:
- ‘The storm is here’: Ashli Babbitt’s journey from capital ‘guardian’ to invader – The Washington Post
- Inside a Deadly Siege: How a String of Failures Led to a Dark Day at the Capitol – The New York Times
- Business groups condemn violence in nation’s capital: ‘This is sedition’ – The Seattle Times
- The attack on the Capitol may pose a cybersecurity risk. Here’s how – The Los Angeles Times
Maybe you can discern the difference between the two from those four sample headlines. But let’s look at the two words individually.
The word capital — with an A — carries several meanings. They relate to a similar origin, referring to the “head” of something. The word entered our language in the 13th century, but its definitions expanded since then.
A capital letter is an upper-case letter so named because it as “the head” or beginning of a sentence.
A capital crime involves the death penalty, which impacts the life of “the head.” The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us capital carried a sense of “deadly, mortal” from the late 14th century in English.
It can also refer to the head of a column and it can refer to wealth and assets.
But the meaning we focus on in this case is this: “the city or town which is the official seat of government.”
Washington, D.C. is the capital of the United States. Columbia is the capital of South Carolina.
Then we turn to capitol — with an O. It refers to a building in which a state legislative body meets. When capitalized, it usually refers to the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States.
The South Carolina State House (which some write as the Statehouse) serves as the capitol for South Carolina. The capitol building lies in Columbia, the capital of the state.
Curbed published a list of 13 “stunning” state capitol buildings across the United States. South Carolina’s didn’t make that list, but there are some beautiful capitols to enjoy in that article. It’s interesting to note that there are 10 capitols that do not have a dome. You can see a few examples in that post.
The only state capitol I’ve seen in person on that list is in Madison, Wisconsin. It’s an impressive building and the city’s Capitol Square, which I visited one year in early summer, was beautiful.
Besides South Carolina’s capitol, I also visited Virginia’s (which also is without a dome) when I lived there.
If you have not had time to see the U.S. Capitol in person, I’d highly recommend you do. I did not go inside because there I didn’t have time during the business trip that took me to Washington. But just turning the corner and seeing that massive dome — and realizing how much bigger it is than you’d think — almost takes your breath away.
So now you know the difference between a capital and a capitol.