The “Capitol” of Capital Misspellings

by drewnilsen

I lived in Austin on-and-off for about nine years, and my heart still resides in the land of great live music, cheap rent (compared to DC, anyway), cheap beer (ditto), liberal politics, flip-flops, Longhorn football, and breakfast tacos (the world’s greatest morning food).

I suspect, though, that every single resident was getting high on the Barton Springs Greenbelt on the day in middle school English when they taught the difference between “capital” and “capitol.” It’s certainly an easy error to make, but every other city seems to grasp the distinction — “capital” (with an “a”) is the city, “capitol” (with an “o”) is the building. For example, Washington, DC, is our nation’s capital, but the neighborhood where underpaid congressional staffers hit free happy buffets is called “Capitol Hill.”
Today, a writer at the excellent Texas Monthly referred to “the capitol city” in an article about Robert Plant living in Austin with singer Patty Griffin. I loved the steak frites at the now-closed Capitol Brasserie, which was downtown and not within view of place where the bidness of Texas — notably, slashing $28 billion from the budget and legalizing the shooting of feral hogs from helicopters — is done. A budget car dealer out in the suburbs — with no apparent fondness for Italian Renaissance Revival-style government buildings — is also named “capitol.” (I’ll cut Capitol Kia some slack, though, because it finally stopped erroneously referring to its location as “Interstate” 183, which does not exist.)

I’ve lived in a few English-speaking capitals — Providence, Cape Town, Austin, and now DC — but I’ve only noticed this issue in wide practice in Austin. What gives?