Friday, January 31, 2014

Kaputt and Caput !

It was a bitterly cold day, and my birthday to boot when I had a stray thought about the word "Kaputt". It is of course a bit of German slang, one that has crossed over into English.  I must have been feeling a little run down and defunct.

It does not exactly have the feel of a proper German word, and I got to wondering if it was one of those words that drop in from another language.  It seemed just a little familiar to me, being teasingly similar to an occasionally used Latin word.

Caput is the Latin word for head.  We still encounter it in medicine from time to time.  A fungal infection of the scalp is Tinea Capitus.  The sinister tangle of dilated veins around the umbilicus that is seen in end stage liver cirrhosis is colorfully called Caput Medusum.  The word is less recognizable but more widely used in its form Capitol in the sense of a nation's "headquarters".

Caput is a most archaic word, so it is not clear exactly how it relates to the Capitoline Hill where we recently heard the faint echo of Monetas and her honking geese.

Like so many forerunner words Caput has a lot of modern descendants including Chief, Chef and Chapter.

And the hop over into French?

Evidently there is an ancient French card game called Piquet.  Rarely played in modern times it was once very popular.  To wander even further off topic a Piquet hand with no face cards was called Carte Blanche.  Games always are a fertile source for slang and the phrase faire capot (literally, "making a bonnet") was used to indicate that one had won all the tricks in a game of Piquet. And where one side wins all, the other loses all.

In the early months of World War I, when German troops surged to within sight of the Eifel Tower they joked, apparently getting it backwards, that the French were faire capot, with the sauerkraut tinged linquistic abilities of the common soldier corrupting and shortening the phrase to kaputt!
(As with most etymological expeditions I am simplifying a bit.  faire capot also was used as nautical term for tipping over a boat, and capot could serve as either a word for bonnet or as a general term for over garments of a nautical or military nature.  All these shades of meaning probably went into the generation of a new and rather specific term for military defeat)

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