Friday, February 18, 2011

Word Tidbits: Recap

I was driving home the other day, listening to NPR’s fabulous All Things Considered as I do every night. The woman presenting her story said something like, “For those of you unfamiliar with his record, let’s recapitulate.” Naturally, I immediately wondered how many people know that “recap” is actually an abbreviation of the word recapitulate.

Of course, I immediately looked it up both on-line and in my adored 2,700-page Webster. There, recap is defined as putting a new cap or tread on something. Recapitulate, in many forms, stands fully defined and clearly its own word. In many other places, however, I saw no acknowledgment of the fact that recap stands for a longer word (and one with a more easily-understandable etymology). Indeed my word processor defined recapitulation with “same as recap” with a link to that definition. You can imagine my horror at this sort of linguistic laziness.

And so for those of you who were unaware, I point out that giving a recap is fine for sports scores and television shows. I don’t even believe you should include a period at the end of the word to indicate this apparently-obscure English tidbit. But do remember that in serious writing recapitulate needs to do its own job. Regardless of the widely-accepted nature of recap as a word it will never be more than a small part of recapitulate.

For those among you who are curious, it came from the Latin recapitulare which was a compound of the re- prefix meaning "again" added to the word capitulum for "chapter or main part" or even older, "small head". That makes perfect sense considering that recapitulate means a concise review of the main points or headings of a larger whole.