Words have power. They can evoke raw feeling and emotion. They can stir hate or provoke joy, convey knowledge or disinformation. More fundamentally, they are the way by which we communicate with one another. They are representations and as has been proven by both elected representatives and dead language script, those representations can stray far from their original intention. Sometimes cultural phenomena and changing sentiments can nudge a shift in language. Time, memory, and dynamic attention spans do a a number on this. And just like everything else, language, and the words that make it up, must change. And in our increasingly complex world, other languages confront and blend with each other and so the influence of other ‘foreign’ words give rise to new words and even whole languages. If this is not closely monitored, then the power to define – a formidable power in and of itself – is left to the discretion with which the wind blows at any particular moment.
After a while, we find ourselves using the words we use without really knowing what meanings are held within them and how those meanings might have been manipulated and even emptied. ‘Capital’ – the word of the issue – is one such word that has gone on a bit of a journey to get it where it stands today. We, the speakers of language, are guilty of a fair amount of abuse the word has suffered in its meaning.
So, allow me to remind you of the words of Inigo Montoya, the protagonist of William Goldman’s 1993 novel, The Princess Bride: ‘you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.’
Capital has many meanings. But what do these meanings mean? The following definitions of capital are adapted from the Google English Dictionary definition compiled by Oxford Languages.
1. adjective. (of a letter of the alphabet) larger in size and casing than others used to denote the beginning of a sentence or to indicate a proper noun or name.
This definition is perhaps the simplest and most ready to mind of all the capitals. It is also perhaps the most unscathed by time and man. We see it every day. It is impossible for you to have gotten this far into the issue without having seen thousands of examples. I cannot even write what I have written without using them. Each sentence. And there is another. All of the definitions explored here derive from the Latin capit or head. Since the large letter ‘heads’ the sentence, it is capitalised. Though at first glance, it does seem arbitrary that we begin our sentences with capital letters. Then again, there is a certain aesthetic appeal to it. An order, for those who like discipline and organisation. Sometimes called upper case, this terminology comes from the fact that early print shops kept all the letters of the alphabet in cases, the capital letters were literally kept in a case that was higher than the ‘lower’ case letters that would be more easily accessed as they would be more frequently used. Originally, all English was written in capital letters, so they weren’t very capital, but then as written word became more easily available a combination of beauty in typography and systematic ease for the dear reader created this discrepancy between upper- and lower-case letters. And then, a capital might appear in the middle of a sentence, your eye is drawn to it, therefore it must be important. Such are names of peoples and places. But, beware, as this is not always so. Some names prefer to be uncapitalised. Such is the case of bell hooks, the pen name of the late American author, born Gloria Jean Watkins. Though she says she prefers the name to be lower case so that people emphasise her message instead of her name. And then there are the bin/binti-s or ibn/ibna-s often kept lower-cased as they simply mean ‘son/daughter of’ or for our friends with the latin d’/de/del in their name which is sometimes capitalised and sometimes not, the word simply meaning ‘from’ as last names in the romance language cultures, like the Arabic inspired ones often took their hometowns as their surnames. And then there are the people who fear offending others so they capitalise any word that might signify one’s identity so that it is at least textually given its due – this of course is a hot topic debate amongst editors and writers in a world largely trending towards less capital letters. Not every ritual or practice needs capitalisation, such as hajj for example. But we should take note and take heed that texting is throwing off the scales, who has time to capitalise in a text message, its one extra button press. Punctuation and silly aesthetics don’t pay the rent, which is exceedingly high. Then again there are the over-caffeinated and sexually frustrated teens who insist on writing texts in ALL CAPS (because they will not be silenced by any Boomers today!). Has the English language gone full circle? They also use the dreaded acronym, which I am not allowed to call ‘lazy’ in fear of offending one’s generation, race, or gender. But worst yet, acronyms abandon all semblance of rules when it comes to capitalising as one might do in the title of a book. ‘The’, ‘of’, ‘from’, ‘and’ are but a few of the words that sometimes get the capital and other times do not. Is it HOTD or HotD (referring to HBO’s television series House of the Dragon)? TYVM (Thank you very much) but I am not lolling (Laugh Out Loud) over the slow gutting of the English Language, but I suppose WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). And do not get me started on emojis. For those of you who suffer from hoofdaphobia – they who fear capital letters – the editors sincerely apologise.
2. noun. city or town that serves as a) the seat of government or the administration of a particular region, state, or nation; b) a focal point for economic activity and headquarters of businesses; c) a hub for cultural or artistic expression and creation; and d) point of unity for a given idea, peoples, or things.
There used to be something of a rhyme and reason that was quite common for traditional capital cities. Ancient and early modern borders tended to be much more fluid than those that seem rather unmalleable for those keeping track of the Brexit negotiations. Therefore, to have a stable state, it was necessary to keep your capital city rather centrally located and extra points for setting it up next to a source of flowing water for nourishment and transport. Memphis for Ancient Egypt, Babylon for Mesopotamia, and Xi’an for Ancient China, are good examples of this. Two of them retain similar capitals today in the slightly more northern and slightly more contemporary cities of Cairo and Baghdad. Moscow always required satellite buffers like a moat of city-states to keep its safe from all its enemies, even before the Soviet Republics. Likewise, Rome, Paris, and Madrid. Added to that, it was more the rule than the exception that the business capital of a state was not the same as the administrative capital. Your business capital must be easier to access, hints why Shanghai and Hong Kong became such global wealth leaders. In New York for example, while everyone knows New York as a more cosmopolitan place where people go to succeed, the state capital is in the lesser known and more central (or to the New Yorker, ‘upstate’) Albany. The cultural and artistic capitals largely rely on the game of chance and where more people will flock, where the odds are higher that one of them is a visionary genius. Yet Cannes, Milan, and São Paulo break the mould. But what is happening to capital cities today? Are they still what they used to be, or do we just play along so their feelings do not get hurt? Take London for instance. What is London? Indeed, a global city, but is it the city of England, the United Kingdom, the long dead and irrelevant but also still somehow so British Empire? Is it a Roman ruin, a capitalist’s paradise, or the future? The very definition of an identity crisis perhaps! And following the possible emergence of a return to city-state ordering, what are certain nations today outside of their capital city. Can the ‘head’ city survive alone without its appendages? And then there are all these neo capitals. Putrajaya in Malaysia, Islamabad in Pakistan, Brasilia in Brazil, Nusantara in Indonesia, Astana in Kazakhstan, Naypyidaw in Myanmar, and the nightmares they dream up in Egypt and the metropolises rising from the sand in northern Saudi Arabia. Not one of them has historic precedent in their given country and they are all planned with the boring template of grid style American city complete with wasted taxpayer money on gaudy aesthetic value that betrays the country’s culture and maintains an overall artificial feel within the city limits. While urbanisation trends will ebb and flow, as the need for a city in the traditional sense fades and the rise of global nomads continues, anything can come from anywhere and what is a capital city from any other dot on the map when cyberspace is the place where the music makers and dreamers of dreams dwell.
3. adjective. (of a charge, offence, or penalty) answerable under the punishment of death.
Odd here that capital, which we have established as a durative of ‘head’ or ‘primary’ or ‘first’ (with a minor bit of extrapolation) has not only latched itself to crime and punishment but the most severe form of that sentence. If we take a page from Foucault (something that should always be done with extreme caution) we see punishment, or the history of the Western penal system, as a giant power move. The whole history of prisons was not derived out of a push for humanitarian concern or reform, but for the state to exercise power over the body of its people. One does not have to buy into this, but what is interesting is that yes, penal history has largely trended towards cracking down on torture or unnecessary cruelty, but failed to ultimately make the jump (at least at this point) from a retributive form of achieving justice (which as it is written sounds like one of those things that is equally and contradictorily subject and objective, physical and ethereal) to a restorative form of justice. And prisons being the ultimate denial of freedom and as subject to inequalities as everything else under the sun, certainly power plays a major role here. Yet in the definition of capital punishment, the ultimate move of power, inequality, and retribution – taking another’s life – feels like a gross oversight in that history. But maybe not, as has been demonstrated, capitalism as such has driven deep inequalities and drudged up contradictions, such as giving the state the power to take away what it also holds as sacred and often (in Christian, Muslim, and even so-called secular contexts) only in the power of higher beings. So, while we might think the ‘head’ punishment should be something that teaches a moral lesson, it is yet another gross bastardisation of a system conceived to preserve a public order. And capital in all its definitions is not above such wickedness. Though, it is fun to dream the unthought future of a society where capital punishment is admitting ones fault, apologising, and all of society moving on realising it was really all about the friends we made along the way.
4. adjective. excellent. Example: ‘he’s a really capital fellow!’
No one calls anyone a ‘really capital fellow’ these days. I do wonder what you would think if someone referred to you or anyone else as a ‘capital fellow’ and I struggle to think of that being perceived as anything but an utter insult. Let alone anything resembling ‘excellence’. Perhaps one could call Donald Trump a capital fellow. Interpret that as you will. Do not try to bring this back, reclaim, or revive it. It is dead and that is where it should stay. Moving on.
5. noun. wealth in the form of money or other assets owned by a person or organization or available for a purpose such as starting a company or investing.
The next few definitions will be more familiar to the philosophically and economically minded. Let’s break this first one down. This particular definition is chock-full of loaded terms. Right off the bat, wealth. Wealth infers a worthiness and therefor value, something that is highly subjective, but that does not keep the Capitalist from sleeping at night. Since numerous religions of our day conclude that the one with the least material things is in fact the wealthiest amongst humanity. Therefore, wealth doesn’t even have to be anything at all. This seems fraught with chaotically disastrous consequences. And then you will take that highly subjective, highly volatile thing and conform it to money, an official symbol that has a calculatable sum. Something relatively objective. Okay, but if you can’t give it a dollar amount, you can equate this ‘wealth’, which leaves room for some lovely loss through translation, to an asset, or a thing that is worth something, like money, but too big to fit into a wallet. Though it could be so small it would be silly to carry it in a normal wallet. Then again, this doesn’t rule out a person as an asset. You might say, no, neoliberal capitalist society does not believe in slavery, but I would then direct you to the case studies of, the sports-industrial complex (particularly the debate around whether or not college athletes in the US should be paid) and all the other people turned cause célèbre referred to as various other titles than ‘assets’ (e.g. every stretch of the definition of entertainment and contracted workers – if you can tell them apart from their robot-asset counterparts). So, this wealth is then owned by a person or organisation (or corporation which are basically the same thing as people according to the 2010 US Supreme Court decision on Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission). This somewhat subjective somewhat objective wealth of a certain value is thus available to start a company or to put forward as an investment for the launching of other business. Basically, here we have start-up capital. Most businesses not being started by people born into wealth need it. Although a bit dubious in what it actually is (there is a great difficulty in saying this, the thing I point at, is capital), there is a socially cohesive and beneficial concept at play here, at the very least. A path towards prosperity if you will. See terms and conditions. See reform literature and post-capitalism for hope.
6. noun. the excess of a company’s assets over its liabilities.
Okay, so here is a different take. The last definition was that initial push one needs to start a business or launch the starting of other businesses. Now, we are looking at a company in its mature form. And again, this should be seen as something of a snapshot thanks to the subjective objectivity discussed in the last definition. Take all the assets, which again includes human beings in certain circumstances, legally, though most economics textbooks might mention a piece of machinery, a legal patent, a car, a building, and other lifeless assets. Yet people and other living things are assets if I’m running a zoo, a circus, or a federal government. Then subtract your liabilities, which here is sort of a harsh term. The point is the debt taken on by the person or organization in question, but by calling it a liability you make this into a moral conundrum, and by this point in most industrial capitalist societies, morality has already been lost to the ages, only the matter of the nerds in uni who study philosophy. There is not necessarily a moral relationship, but an interesting intimacy between liabilities and assets. For instance, machines need electricity, a cost, cars need petrol, a cost, and patents require legal fees (which conspicuously always seem to be higher for the legal advice sought at the Shariah Patent Courts…). Theoretically, for your human assets these can be quite cumbersome, expensive, and debatable if we are going to bring Maslow into this. So, simplify that into a ‘wage’ – spare me the nuance of living, minimum, or universal categorisations of this word I made up for the sake of my balance sheet. The capital discussed here is highly volatile and easy to manipulate. I could increase my company’s capital by spiking up petrol or brands or other costs. But how do we judge the wealth or lack thereof if I am a record company and Brittney Spears is my asset, and since she is a minor, I can give her parents money as she soars to stardom and all the other costs can be kept low. You may say I get my comeuppance when she shaves her head and falls from grace. Yet when her abuse and exploitation is exposed and she ascends to godhead-ness, in a world where I don’t actually have to produce physical records or CDs (throw out that liability) since all of this is now digital, my capital is back in spades, even if I now have to pay her a fair amount. Perhaps morality should not be allowed to stray too far from this?
7. noun. people who possess wealth and use it to control a society’s economic activity, considered collectively.
This is sort of a jarring definition at first glance. Why would anyone entrust the wealth of a collective to any one person or group? Libertarians can stop reading here and be free to leave society. This is State Capital or the Wealth of Nations. Though in Singapore, State Capital and the Capital of a Company might not look different at all since Singapore is essentially ran like a fortune five hundred company. And, theoretically, in most democracies, the people elect a few of them to determine how best to utilise it so as to provoke transactions amongst the public. Taxes come in and pork and systemic policies unable to keep up with our rapidly changing world and challenges come out. Make money, spend money, round and round it goes. In an equal world, this might not be so bad, but, as it turns out, our work is not equal. Indeed, Singapore is not alone. Thanks to gross inequalities, some individuals and organisations are actually capitally stuffed enough to control a society’s economic activity and many governments are so fearful that this reality might actually be recognised that they spend all their efforts trying to regulate the unregulatable and cannot even get to their usual business before exposing how ignorant they are to the contemporary world’s workings via an unveiling of idiocy that takes place during every public Congressional hearing. Yet, perhaps Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and the lot could see out the objective of this definition better than a national government. To make this judgement we have to hang on that last clause. Do they indeed consider the collective? A history of books since Charles Dickens leaves me unwilling to hold my breath for the good capitalist superman. Many of these companies do not know what they want for themselves, let alone their neighbour, or the beggar on the street they are incapable of seeing. Plus, when you spend so much time trying to convince a consumer that you know what they want more than them, greed actually being collective consideration doesn’t seem like that bad of a contradiction and the only thing the invisible hand is giving is a dismissive ‘up yours’ sign.
8. noun. a valuable resource of a particular kind. (e.g. human capital, green capital)
I must pump the breaks on this one right from the beginning. This definition, in the words of the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt, is bullshit. Adding capital to something that is valuable is just dumbing it down so that the people with the money might care for it. Ah yes, value another of those subjectively objective terms that means everything and nothing, context notwithstanding. Capital in this definition can be replaced with ‘care for’. But Capital does some spooky magic stuff here. If you just said, ‘your company should invest in care for humans’, a company would feel insulted, assure you it is not gay/antigay (depending on the political situation) , and assure you they are, in fact, a feminist. A company requires a certain happiness (that is, obedience) from its workers and consumers. A good company will invest in the education of their people, new skills training, health initiatives, paid leave, a new higher quality vending machine in the breakroom, toilet breaks, and so on. A CEO will say, ‘I give them wages, do I not? Let them pay for that rubbish themselves’. But if I say, no no this is investing in human capital. Then suddenly its sexy and attractive to the company. Maybe I can get a tax right off! Maybe those hippies who vote for the wrong guys will give me their money if they see how magnanimous I am! Likewise, I am not going to do a silly environmental impact study, I am investing in green capital! Keep the machine rolling and let the language game keep everyone drinking the Kool-Aid! But seriously, this is the way you trick a fussy child into eating their veggies, not how you convince the captains of industry to be good for Christ’s sake!
9. exclamation. used to express approval, satisfaction, or delight.
Capital! These amphetamines feel great! Capital really does make everything easier to swallow.
10. noun. the distinct, typically broader section at the head of a pillar or column.
This definition comes to us from the wonderful world of architecture and sums things up nicely. The capital of a column holds all the stress and maintains the structure. It makes for eloquence and objective beauty. At least something worthy of awe. It is recognisant of what all the other definitions of capital try to attain, something with stature, something sophisticated, something that actually makes the world a better place and humans better at that whole civilisation thing. The evolution of our modern word, capital, is rather easy to follow. As stated above we begin with Latin’s caput (head) which gave way to the Late Latin capitellum (little head). This carried on into Old French, capitel. And then was adopted by modern English, perhaps during one of the lovely tea parties or campaigns of conquest, gaining the hard Norman ‘a’ and voila, capital. So, let’s not get a big head about this and mind our words and try to work out an economic system that does not enrich the superrich at the expense of the rest, especially the poor.