early 13c., "of or pertaining to the head," from Old French capital, from Latin capitalis "of the head," hence "capital, chief, first," from caput (genitive capitis) "head" (from PIE root *kaput- "head"). The meaning "main, principal, chief, dominant, first in importance" is from early 15c. in English. The modern informal sense of "excellent, first-rate" is by 1754 (as an exclamation of approval, OED's first example is 1875), perhaps from earlier use of the word in reference to ships, "first-rate, powerful enough to be in the line of battle," attested from 1650s, fallen into disuse after 1918. Related: Capitally.
A capital letter "upper-case latter," of larger face and differing more or less in form (late 14c.) is so called because it stands at the "head" of a sentence or word. Capital gain is recorded from 1921. Capital goods is recorded from 1899.
A capital crime or offense (1520s) is one that involves the penalty of death and thus affects the life or "head" (capital had a sense of "deadly, mortal" from late 14c. in English, as it did earlier in Latin). The felt connection between "head" and "life, mortality" also existed in Old English: as in heafodgilt "deadly sin, capital offense," heafdes þolian "to forfeit life." Capital punishment was in Blackstone (1765) and classical Latin capitis poena.
c. 1400, "devoted to or relating to home life;" 1560s as "living with others," from French social (14c.) and directly from Latin socialis "of companionship, of allies; united, living with others; of marriage, conjugal," from socius "companion, ally," probably originally "follower," from PIE *sokw-yo-, suffixed form of root *sekw- (1) "to follow." Compare Old English secg, Old Norse seggr "companion," which seem to have been formed on the same notion). Related: Socially.
Sense of "characterized by friendliness or geniality" is from 1660s. Meaning "living or liking to live with others; companionable, disposed to friendly intercourse" is from 1720s. Meaning "of or pertaining to society as a natural condition of human life" first attested 1695, in Locke. Sense of "pertaining to fashionable society" is from 1873.
Social climber is from 1893; social work is 1890; social worker 1886. Social drinking first attested 1807. Social studies as an inclusive term for history, geography, economics, etc., is attested from 1916. Social security "system of state support for needy citizens" is attested from 1907 (the Social Security Act was passed by U.S. Congress in 1935). Social butterfly is from 1867, in figurative reference to "flitting."
Social contract (1763) is from translations of Rousseau. Social Darwinism attested from 1887. Social engineering attested from 1899. Social science is from 1785. In late 19c. newspapers, social evil is "prostitution." Social network is attested by 1971; social networking by 1984; social media by 2008. Social justice is attested by 1718.
I must introduce a parenthetical protest against the abuse of the current term 'social justice'. From meaning 'justice in relations between groups or classes' it may slip into meaning a particular assumption as to what these relations should be; and a course of action might be supported because it represented the aim of 'social justice', which from the point of view of 'justice' was not just. The term 'social justice' is in danger of losing its rational content—which would be replaced by a powerful emotional charge. I believe that I have used the term myself: it should never be employed unless the user is prepared to define clearly what social justice means to him, and why he thinks it just. [T.S. Eliot, footnote in "Notes Towards the Definition of Culture," 1948]
"friendly gathering," 1870, from social (adj.). In late 17c. it meant "a companion, associate."
"head of a column or pillar," late 13c., from Anglo-French capitel, Old French chapitel (Modern French chapiteau), or directly from Latin capitellum "head of a column or pillar," literally "little head," diminutive of caput "head" (from PIE root *kaput- "head").
1610s, "a person's wealth," from Medieval Latin capitale "stock, property," noun use of neuter of Latin capitalis "capital, chief, first" (see capital (adj.)). From 1640s as "the wealth employed in carrying on a particular business," then, in a broader sense in political economy, "that part of the produce of industry which is available for further production" (1793).
[The term capital] made its first appearance in medieval Latin as an adjective capitalis (from caput, head) modifying the word pars, to designate the principal sum of a money loan. The principal part of a loan was contrasted with the "usury"—later called interest—the payment made to the lender in addition to the return of the sum lent. This usage, unknown to classical Latin, had become common by the thirteenth century and possibly had begun as early as 1100 A.D., in the first chartered towns of Europe. [Frank A. Fetter, "Reformulation of the Concepts of Capital and Income in Economics and Accounting," 1937, in "Capital, Interest, & Rent," 1977]
Also see cattle, and compare sense development of fee, and pecuniary. Middle English had chief money "principal fund" (mid-14c.). The noun use of the adjective in classical Latin meant "a capital crime."
late 14c.; see capital (adj.). So called because it is at the "head" of a sentence or word.
South Korean capital, from Korean soul, literally "capital." It was the national capital from 1392 until Japanese annexation in 1910.
Chinese capital, from bei "north" + jing "capital" (as opposed to Nanking, literally "southern capital").