Final Word

Is capital punishment caput or kaput?


A community leader from Cape Town’s recent urge to his community to kill criminals themselves is a grab back to the origins of capital punishment, which is kaput in today’s world.

The use of the word “capital” in this context predates the use thereof in a monetary sense of the word by a long shot, although they share the same root, which is “capot” via French from the same Latin word, meaning “head.”

Someone on the receiving end of capital punishment in some sense of the word ends up “kaput” – being dead. However, “kaput” also has a number of other meanings and came to the English lexicon from a different root and along a different route than “caput.”

Kaput, by many sources regarded as a bit of a slang or a loan word at best, originate from the German word kaputt, meaning “finished, worn out, dead, destroyed, ruined or lost.” It came to German via the Yiddish word for lost or dead.

Both “capot,” and its related “capital” in especially English, and “kaput” in languages as wide apart as Hungarian and Sudanese, have sown its seeds far and wide. 

But let’s take a closer look at each of the two words.

Capital and punishment

Death as a punishment for some serious misdeeds (even some not regarded as all that serious in modern times) goes as far back as recorded history.

One find references to it the Bible’s book of Genesis and the Old Testament’s main record of law/legal matters, the book of Leviticus. And, most historical records and ancient practices indicate that the death penalty as part of communal life’s justice system is as old as communal life itself.

The word “capital” arrived in English in the early 13th century in the sense of “pertaining to the head,” from the Old French capital, from the Latin capitalis (from the root caput) meaning of the head. In English it became to mean “main, principal, chief, dominant and most important from the early 15th century.

The concept of a “capital crime” comes from the 1520s with life being associated with the head and capital had a sense of “deadly mortal” from late in the 14th century. It gave rise to concepts like “deadly sins or capital offenses.”

Concepts like “capital letter” (early 15th century) and “capital city” (first recorded in 1660) would also develop.

The financial meaning of the word, most used today, was first recorded in English in the 1910s, although Middle English had a principal fund” (as in chief money) by the mid-14th century.

In medieval Latin the word “capital” was however also used to indicate the principal sum of money of a loan made to distinguish it from what was then called unsury and which we today call interest as the additional money payable to the lender besides the repayment of the “principal” amount.

This practice, which was unknown to classical Latin, had only become common by the 13th century, but there are indication that it did exists as early as 1100 AD in parts of Europe.

But back to capital in the context of punishment – my two favourite quotations on the subject that I could find:

  • “I think capital punishment works great. Every killer you kill never kills again,” said by Bill Maher; and
  • Capital punishment is our society's recognition of the sanctity of human life,” according to Orrin Hatch.

The Latin caput also gave us words as captain, as the principal or head officer on a ship, decapitate as was common during the French Revolution, the surname Caputo and the French word chapitre (originally used for the “head” at the top of pillars), which became “chapter in English as the “head” of a new section in a book or an era in history.

“Caput” is also used in the field of medicine to describe a head-like protuberance on an organ in the body.


“Kaput” started off its live in English in the late 19th century to indicate that someone was “trickless” in the game of piquet or making a zero score.

Today it is being used to indicate that someone or something is utterly finished, defeated or destroyed, unable to function or something that has fallen into total disuse, being outmoded.

It is said that the word was made popular in English during World War and the early victories of the Germans in that war rendered enemies kaputt.

In English the original kaput also, via French, became “capot.” In French “capot” is also used to mean “cover or bonnet” and also used as the name for particular kind of great cloak worn by sailors and soldiers. And, just to confuse matters further, in a game of cards you become “a bonnet” if you lose all the tricks. Conversely, you “scored a capot” against someone if you win all the tricks from him or her.

It is said that the word “kaput,” although popularised during World War I, fell largely into disuse in English only to be revived during the 1940s by the next World War when the Soviet Red Army and other Eastern European forces used “Hitler kaput” as a slogan. From thereon it gained global traction.

Final word

There are instances in history, like in China, Japan and even the United Kingdom, where capital punishment were disbanded for a time just to be re-introduced again later.

Not only in South Africa but also in other parts of the word plagued by high rates of crime, the debate about the re-introduction of capital punishment is on again. And judged by public opinion polls it is all but sure that capital punishment will stay kaput.

by Piet Coetzer

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Final Word

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