Heads of Cattle (A Capital Idea)
By Phil Baldi, Pennsylvania State University
ou have to love the word for "head" and its development from Proto-Indo-European into English. The ancient Proto-Indo-European root *kaput finds its way into the Germanic subgroup of the Indo-European language family
(where English is located) in a number of forms: in Old English (ca. 700-1100 CE) it shows up as "he:afod", which is attested in Old English with the meaning of "top part of the
body" in the early part of the eighth century. It also appears in in Gothic as "haubith", Old Icelandic as "hofudh", and in Old High German as "haubit" (Modern German "Haupt").
In English, the word is attested with the meaning of "chief person, ruler" already by about 897 CE; the spelling "head" does not appear in English before 1420. Meanwhile, the root
is also prominent in Latin, appearing as "caput" (head), where it also has the meaning of "chief person, leader". The Latin "caput" develops into the Romance languages as we might
expect (e.g. French "chef", Italian "capo").
Many forms representing this root which occur in Modern English have been borrowed, and exist alongside some forms, like "head", which are directly descended from
Proto-Indo-European. For example, "capital", "capitate", "decapitate", "capitulate" "biceps" and "triceps" are all direct Latin borrowings which contain the "*kaput" form (a
"bicep" is a muscle which has two heads). Later, French-based reflexes of this root occurring in English include Old French "captain", "caprice" (ultimately from Italian),
"chapter", and "achieve", and also Anglo-French (ca. 1250 CE) "cattle" in the sense of "property, livestock".
The "head" word has been borrowed and
reborrowed so many times that it has left some interesting traces of its history. For example, the word "chief" in the sense of "leader" was borrowed into Middle English from Old
French, preserving the meaning. Much later the word "chef" in the specialized sense of "head cook" was borrowed from French again (it first appeared in this form and meaning in
English in 1826). Note the way English preserves the Old French pronunciation with "ch" in "chief" and the Modern French pronunciation with "sh" in "chef". So in effect this
original root has found its way into English along at least five different paths: as inherited "head", as Italian "capo", as Latin "capital" (for example), as Old French "chief"
and as Modern French "chef". Amazing.
Back to Baldi Index >
Back to the Card Catalog >
More Baldi: Shabby Seedlings and Tennis Rankings >