Odd Words: Capa


We have reached page 40 of The New York Times Everyday Reader’s Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused, and Mispronounced Words: Revised Edition. It was odd. There were a lot of words that I didn’t know, but none were all that compelling. I settled on the first word of the page: capa.


You may recall a few days ago, we had two odd words that related to different edible parts of the turtle. Well, today we got another turtle word: “carapace.” It is “the tough upper part of a turtle’s shell.

That’s fine; I can definitely see a need for such a word. But it makes me wonder if the editors of the dictionary didn’t have a special fondness for turtles.

Technical Words

The reason it was hard to find a good word was that this page was filled with technical words — those associated with some kind of specialized endeavor. That’s even true of the chosen word today, “capa.” And it is true of “carapace” too.


One such word, which I assume comes to us from statistics, is “capitation.” It is “a method of assessment or enumeration on the basis of individuals.” It’s kind of odd that the word was a mystery to me, because I’m pretty up on statistics. What’s more “per capita” is something that pretty much everyone knows. But whereas “per capita” is a word for outsiders looking in, “capitation” is a word for those who practice the art.


One area that is always good for arcane words is sailing. And today, we had “caravel,” which is “a small, two or three-masted vessel, used by the Spanish and Portuguese during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Interestingly, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he brought two caravels with him: the Niña and the Pinta. The Santa Maria was a carrack, a larger boat — which the big man himself used.


Another word of this type is “capilarity,” which is “the action by which the surface of a liquid in contact with a solid is raised or lowered, depending on surface tension and the forces of cohesion and adhesion.” Unfortunately, I knew that word. Normally, I wouldn’t. But the work I did for my MS degree was all about permafrost. (It was titled something like “Trace Gas Emissions From Permafrost in the Warmer World,” which was actually kind of a hot topic for a while — and one I still see people writing about.)

The way that water resides in soil is fascinating. Soil is filled with capillaries, where the water resides (assuming it is wet). The capilarity causes a lot of interesting effects in permafrost. It isn’t as simple as heating a bowl of water; you have to take a lot of things into account. I miss working on that kind of stuff!

Do Not Chase the Capa

Although today’s word is technical, I think it is interesting: capa.

Ca·pa  noun  \kā’-pə\

1. the red cloak carried by a bullfighter.

Date: Late 18th century.

Origin: from Latin (via Spanish), cappa.

Example: The capeador calmly trots his horse up to the bull, and, when within a few feet, jeeringly waves his capa before its very nose. –Otis Mygatt, The Real Bull-Fight — An Englishman’s View of Bull-Fighting

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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