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In several languages, the word for "chapter" (a self-contained unitary text of a book) comes from the word for "head":

  • In Latin, "capitulum" (literally "small head") comes from caput (head). This word have derivatives in a lot of other languages, including English' "chapter".
  • In Greek, the word for chapter is "κεφάλαιο" ("cephalaio"), which comes from "κεφάλι" ("cepháli", head), which the english prefix "cephalo-" comes from.
  • In some Slavic languages, including Russian, chapter is "глава" ("glava"), which also means "head".
  • In Armenian, "գլուխ" ("glux") is both "chapter" and "head".
  • In Guarani, "akã" means both "chapter" and "head".
  • In Maori, "upoko" is both "chapter" and "head".

How is the word for chapter related to head in those languages. Which semantical derivation or metaphor was used in the formation of the words for chapter?

  • This question got 3 downvotes. Is there something wrong with the question? – Seninha Mar 28 '18 at 12:05
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    I find linguists have an aversion to "why" in such cases - "how" a word came to mean something is enough and your question shows that you know how to research that already. I answered because I think there is a pretty good reason but note that it would be hard to find a definitive source for my answer, someone who knows for sure what the metaphor meant to the first person who used "head" this way. (Plenty of folk etymologies by overconfident Ancient Roman writers also spoil the broth.) I should clarify that in my answer. – Luke Sawczak Mar 28 '18 at 14:03
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    English "chapter" is a borrowing (via French) from Latin capitulum, not a cognate. – fdb Mar 28 '18 at 16:40
  • I know that it's a borrowing. I'd chosen the wrong word. (But actually derivatives are cognates, aren't they?) – Seninha Mar 28 '18 at 17:37
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    In everyday speech and in second-language instruction, people do tend to use "cognate" to mean a shared ancestor because recognizing those ancestors has such great practical use, but AFAIK as a technical term it refers to a genetic relationship to that ancestor, so no adoption. There might be some disagreement about it (I'm not a linguist) but here's @fdb's stance. – Luke Sawczak Mar 28 '18 at 18:32
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We can't know exactly which quality led so many languages to independently develop or borrow the metaphor — etymological dictionaries rarely speculate on the "why" — but here are my thoughts.

There are at least three qualities of "head" that have a possible metaphor with "chapter".

  1. Head = (most) important. So natural that examples are hardly needed.

  2. Head = first. "Headwaters", "headline", "head off" (get there first), "ahead" (first), etc.
    For some cross-linguistic confirmation from an unrelated language, consider e.g. Hebrew Rosh Hashanah lit. "head of the year", translated "New Year's Day". (The root of rosh incidentally appears in many words, including bereshit usually translated "in the beginning").

  3. Head = orientation. "Ahead" (in the direction faced), "head somewhere", "head fake", etc. Perhaps by connection with face (which direction are you facing?).


Let's investigate using the OED. Their etymology is a good example of how we usually ignore the "why" while charting the "how"; nothing here identifies the link used in the metaphor:

Etymology: A later syncopated form of chapiter n., < Old French chapitre, earlier chapitle < Latin capitulum. diminutive of caput head, used, in ancient Latin, in the senses ‘little head, head of a plant, capital of a column’, and later, those of ‘head-dress of women, chapter of a book, section of a law’. The form chapter appears in Scots in 14th cent., but in English is rare before the 16th; chapiter survived beside it till the middle of the 17th, and is still occasional in the sense ‘capital of a column’.

But I think the definitions themselves give us clues that (1) above is the relevant link:

1. a. A main division or section of a book (whether the latter is an entire literary work, or one of the divisions or parts of a large work). Esp. used of the main divisions of the books of the Bible.

There are examples from as early as c. 1000, but this is the earliest one that's unambiguous to me:

c1386   Chaucer Nun's Priest's Tale 245   In the same book..Right in the nexte chapitre after this.

The ambiguity of the earlier examples arises from overlap with this definition:

2. fig. Head, heading, subject, category. (Usually preceded by on, upon.) arch.

A seemingly relevant example:

1681   W. Temple Mem. iii, in Wks. (1731) I. 342   Upon which Chapter I said a good deal.

And one more whose examples are much later but possibly related to the underlying mechanism:

5. c. A branch of an organization or society, esp. of a college fraternity. U.S.

Based on these, we could propose a semantic development along these lines:

head
    ↓
(broadening) important thing
       ↓
(narrowing) among some group of collected items, e.g. people, the representative or chief
           ↓
(sideways/synecdoche) something having been organized, a main division
               ↓
(narrowing) a main section of a book
                      ↓
(broadening) any section of a book

The paradox is how a word that means "head" came to mean "subdivision". We have to switch our point of view: Looking at a book, the chapters are subdivisions. But looking at the mass of words, each chapter heads a group of them. The chapters of an organization are branches of the whole, but in terms of the members a chapter collects them under a single head(ing). And again, the world has any number of things that are grouped into the "categories" of definition 2. And not just any sections, but the "main" sections of definition 1c. To start with, anyway.

So a chapter is a "head" not looking from the top down, but from the bottom up.

  • Wouldn't "in the beginning" be bareshit (with a pathakh under the bet)? So bereshit should be "in A beginning". – Wilson Mar 28 '18 at 10:32
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    @Wilson It would be a qamats (resh can't be doubled as the def. art. requires and the patakh lengthens to compensate). But interestingly, it is actually a sheva in Gen 1:1 as you guess, indicating no def. art. The Jewish Publication Society translation reads a participle or a construct noun (with bara as the head), and either way renders it "When God began to create". This article argues for it as an indefinite noun and renders "in a former state". Others argue textual corruption. I just went with "usually translated" above :) – Luke Sawczak Mar 28 '18 at 13:55
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In Dutch we have chapter="hoofdstuk" (head piece, literally). "hoofd" (head) can both mean literal head (body part) and figurative (leader/boss), as English head can also mean. The semantics here is "hoofd" as main/governing part of the body --> governing/most important person in general. So the "main parts" of the book are called hoofd-stuk. In Westerlauwer Frisian the same theme can be seen; here we have two words "holle" (for the body part) and "haad" (for the boss) and a chapter is "haadstik", (not "*holstik" or some such). Capital (also caput = head) letters are also "hoofdletter/haadletter" resp. So I'd look into the head=boss semantics in the languages you mentioned as well.

  • So until now we have 3 proposed semantic developments: Chapter is named thus because it's the main (head) parts of a book (your proposal); chapter is named after the book's orientation (Luke's proposal); and it is named after the heading, a short paragraph which identifies a chapter (my proposal). I still haven't found a etymological dictionary explaining the correct semantic evolution. – Seninha Mar 31 '18 at 20:40

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