An American Editor

October 8, 2012

On Language: Ultramontane

I am a subscriber to the New York Review of Books (NYRB), as I have mentioned a number of times in previous posts. Recently, I was reading in the NYRB, an article titled “Can Romney Get a Majority?” (September 27, 2012) in which the author threw me a curveball by using ultramontane to describe Paul Ryan’s social views.

This was the first instance when I wished I had been reading the NYRB on my Nook or Sony reader, which would have given me instant access to a dictionary. Alas, I didn’t have a print dictionary handy when reading the article and I didn’t recall ever having encountered the word previously.

Eventually, I did get to a dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th ed.) and discovered that ultramontane has two meanings: first, “of or relating to countries or people beyond the mountains,” and second, “favoring greater or absolute supremacy of papal over national or diocesan authority in the Roman Catholic Church,” which was the meaning in the article. Or was it?

Actually, the article intended a variation of the second meaning: “favoring greater or absolute supremacy of papal over national (state) authority” without the limitation of “in the Roman Catholic Church.” (It is worth noting that The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 5th ed. includes this “sense” as a usage; it is questionable whether it is a definition. I have multiple dictionaries because of my work; how many readers have or use multiple current dictionaries?)

I understand that the demographics of NYRB subscribers and readers are a cut above the usual in terms of education and literacy (at least that is what their demographics information portrays), but not only did ultramontane cause me to pause, it made me wonder whether its use was good or bad. Unlike many unfamiliar words that I come across, I didn’t come close to deciphering this one via context. I didn’t miss the gist of the sentence, but I also didn’t get the true meaning.

When choosing words to be written in a communication there are at least two major considerations; first, that the word precisely communicate, and second, that it in fact communicate. In this instance, ultramontane was the wrong word choice on both counts: neither dictionary definition was appropriate as is and it is such a rarely used word that I suspect the vast majority of readers would stumble on it and not derive the correct meaning.

With modification of the meaning, ultramontane presents a compact way to get a message across within the context in which it was used in the NYRB. But that is one step too many to meet the singular, ultimate goal of the craft of writing: to communicate. In the absence of this step, the word is clearly the wrong word to use, because the author was not trying to communicate that Paul Ryan believes papal authority is supreme over the Catholic Church; rather, the author was trying to communicate that Ryan believes papal authority is supreme over American government authority and the authority of all religions and moral views, Catholic or other.

We have discussed the question of word choice before (see, e.g., Choosing Words — Carefully), but the context was different even though the result was the same. Here the question is more than choosing that which expresses precisely what you mean; it is choosing that which both expresses what you mean and also is likely to be understood by your readers. This latter means that words also need to be chosen for the broadness of their use among the reading public. Sometimes the precise word needed will require the reader to use a dictionary, but the goal of careful writing should be not to encourage dictionary use but to be understandable as read. It is to that end that correct word choice also means choosing a word whose definition fits the intended meaning as is, without further interpretation.

Ultimately, the question comes down to what should an editor do when faced with a word like ultramontane?

This is a difficult question. If you are of my view, then you would substitute for the word and include an explanation for the author as to why you substituted, giving the author the opportunity to undo the change. The alternative views are (a) to simply leave the word as is or (b) to leave it as is but query the author, explaining why it may be the wrong word choice.

I think a more active approach is best because the one thing that is true about all of us is that we are protective of our creations. In the case of our writing, we are protective because we know what we meant and expect others to know it as well. Who among us is ready to admit that perhaps our writing lacks the clarity it could have? Additionally, a word like ultramontane makes us feel linguistically accomplished and allows us to demonstrate to others our skills. But if we are faced with a change that makes it better and given the opportunity to revert to the original, we are more likely to think about what we have written and what the editor suggests. We are required to react, something that the other two approaches do not require. (As most, if not all, editors have experienced, simply querying doesn’t always get a response from an author. It is not unusual for a query to be ignored. I have yet to find, however, an author who will ignore my query when I have actively changed wording and then queried my change.)

Which approach would you take as an editor? Which approach would you want as an author? Why?



  1. I think it depends upon context and who the reader is likely to be. I like your strategy of changing it and querying the author about the change. I think I lean more toward leaving the word in and asking the writer if he feels his audience will understand it, then suggesting an alternative word. It’s always a toss-up, because as an editor I don’t want to display a lack of understanding, ie, I don’t want to look dumb!

    Do you feel in some cases (maybe in this particular case) the writer was deliberately unclear, leaving it for only a few to figure out?


    Comment by Jan Arzooman — October 8, 2012 @ 6:15 am | Reply

    • I don’t fear looking dumb. In fact, I tell my clients that my role is to be the average reader found in the target audience and to point out to the client what I think that average reader won’t understand. Few of us have such complete mastery over our language that we are not stymied by words and phrases on occasion. And if we who deal with words all the time are stymied, how likely is it that the target reader will also be stymied?

      I do suspect that in some cases authors are deliberately vague, but I’m not so sure that is ever a wise authorial strategy outside fiction. Isn’t the point of writing nonfiction to educate the reader to the author’s point of view? In this particular case, I do not think the author was deliberately vague; I think the author understood the word to mean the sense rather than the definition and so used it. But even if the author was correct in the usage, is this the right word choice? Maybe for the NYRB because of the education demographics of its readers, but in general I would think not. If you disrupt the reading flow, your reader may well miss your point or find it weaker than it is.


      Comment by americaneditor — October 8, 2012 @ 6:31 am | Reply

  2. In response to “how many readers have or use multiple current dictionaries?”:

    I use just Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate 11th ed., for two reasons. (1) It is generally considered the “industry standard” for publishing, and is the only dictionary that clients ever request I use as a reference. (2) Having multiple dictionaries is a strain on my budget as well as my brain.

    Part of copyediting is applying consistency to a manuscript, and it’s far easier — and IMO more sensible — to use one yardstick for measuring. Thus, I’m not keen to introduce variables. When I encounter a word that isn’t in MW11, I’ll either dig out the unabridged version or look for the word online. Once a word has to be chased down, it almost always introduces the need to query in a manuscript.

    Which leads to the second question: “Which [querying] approach would you take as an editor? Which approach would you want as an author? Why?”

    I go both ways, depending on the circumstances. If a relatively common word doesn’t seem right in the context of a sentence, I’ll flag it and insert a query (e.g., word in ms. is “portentous”; query is “Do you mean “pretentious”?). In a more complicated situation, such as “ultramontane,” I’ll investigate the word and if an obvious substitute is available, I’ll change it and query (“Replaced with “xxx” because “yyy.” OK?), whereas if I can’t figure out what the author is trying to say or there’s no obvious alternative, I’ll stet the word then write a comprehensive query asking the author what he/she wants to do.

    As an author, I’m OK with having the same done back to me. What I don’t like is unacknowledged substitution. In one of the book review arrangements I have, I lose control of content once I submit the review. Depending on who’s editing that day, my review will go through untouched, or lightly tweaked, or heavily edited — with words I never use dropped in. This latter practice steams me.

    Conversely, having an editor ask permission for every little thing is annoying and makes me question their ability or confidence or authority.


    Comment by Carolyn — October 8, 2012 @ 6:47 am | Reply

    • I guess I shouldn’t worry about looking dumb, either, but in my quest to make something readable for the AVERAGE audience I’d hope to have a knowledge above average. I AM frequently looking up new words and phrases … I’m going to admit here that book reviews, in general, especially in places like the NYRB, frequently leave me thinking that I can’t even finish the review, let alone the book, if I’m not familiar with every other book this author has written, his life history, and the history and work of all his influences, contemporaries and protégés. I’m not surprised that a word like ultramontane was used.

      I also agree with Carolyn about not asking permission with every little thing while editing. I edit more fiction than non-fiction books, so I have to be careful about what I change. If the book is a genre I don’t read very often, such as a technical science fiction book, I’ll look up an unfamiliar word or phrase, and then do an internet search to see where else (and how else) it’s been used. If it seems it’s used fairly often in science fiction, I would leave it. If it really throws me off and it does seem pretty obscure, I’ll query and suggest an alternative.


      Comment by janarzooman — October 8, 2012 @ 10:30 am | Reply

  3. First, I really enjoy your columns — especially the recent one suggesting that the reason many people can’t find a flaw in their
    writing/editing (re usage, lack of agreement, etc.) is because colleges are no longer teaching logic. Well said, and right on!

    Just a quick comment on this topic, namely the use of ultramontane. I may bring some baggage/background to this as a Roman
    Catholic editor with extensive background in church history. I don’t normally like to encounter words I think the writer is
    using to be purposely arcane (or suggest superiority by having us, the unenlightened readers, scurrying for a dictionary).

    However in this case I think the use of “ultramontane” re Paul Ryan was correct and intended — perhaps to be “fuzzy” on both counts.
    Roman Catholic ultramontanists of the 18th-19th century were those very traditional Catholics who yearned for a return to the monarchy
    (and a strong papacy allied with the monarchy of course). Those who subscribed to this view did so on both religious and political grounds,
    rejecting all that was modern (in the case of France, rejecting the revolution and yearning for the restoration of a “Catholic” king, etc.)
    Without getting into partisan politics, viewed from my own Catholic lens, it seems that as a Catholic, Ryan is very sui generis and “cafeteria” style, e.g.,
    strongly anti-abortion (perceived as pro-life Catholic) but not accepting much of his church’s own social teachings on war,treatment of the poor, the economy,
    subsidiarity, global/environmental awareness, etc. Thus we could say his Catholicism is of an ultramontanist approach because aligned with Catholicism’s
    traditional religious pastbut not with contemporary expression. At the same time his politics would seem to favor a strong, centralized government (read: monarchy)
    and absolutist presidential power (read: equivalent of papacy).

    So, in summary, yes, I think the NYRB writer purposely and very correctly used “ultramontane” in this case. Whether referring only to Catholic
    “politics” or US “politics,” the word seems the perfect choice to me to describe Ryan’s worldview.

    That being said, won’t we all be relieved when this election is over? I for one would then like to be a literal “ultramontanist” and head
    off to a vacation somewhere “beyond the mountains” — the Swiss Alps or the American Rockies both have appeal!


    Comment by Patricia Lynn Morrison — October 8, 2012 @ 11:48 am | Reply

    • Thanks for your perspective. I think your comment, when juxtaposed with my article’s view, points to the problem of using the term: Your background permits the drawing of the inference immediately but those like me, who do not have that Catholic background have to go to the dictionary and make further deductions in order to come to the conclusion you draw — and we are unlikely to do so, as witnessed by my not coming to the same conclusion as you (and I had no notion of the history with which the word is associated). Do you really want a reader to halt in the middle of your article to do that? Even if the word is correct?


      Comment by americaneditor — October 8, 2012 @ 1:00 pm | Reply

      • When I come across a word with which I’m not familiar in a printed piece, especially a scholarly one, I immediately note it and
        then do look it up. As another reader noted, I too love learning new words and their histories. However, I realize many or most
        readers won’t do that. (Hey, I enjoyed reading the dictionary even as a kid, so I guess I’m just weird!) But I just finished editing
        a book chapter which I sent back to the author suggesting he find more common word usages — since it’s aimed at a general
        rather than scholarly readership. I did so precisely because I didn’t want readers’ eyes glazing over at the “theology speak”
        in the chapter…. It seems to depend on the context. In NYRB I would not have a problem with a writer using an unfamiliar
        (to me) word. In a publication aimed for general readership (increasing, alas “dumbed down” to about 6th grade level), I’d
        suggest the author recast somewhat. Thanks for the feedback…


        Comment by Patricia Morrison — October 8, 2012 @ 1:30 pm | Reply

  4. The best advice I ever got about writing was “No one ever complained that something was written too clearly.” I’d like to see a survey of readers of the NYRB to see how many of them knew what ultramontane was before reading the article cited. It’s one thing to know your audience and not patronize them, but it’s another to intentionally obfuscate.


    Comment by le cul en rows — October 8, 2012 @ 6:43 pm | Reply

  5. Be it noted that the first time I read the word “ultramontane” I saw it as “Ultramondane”; there are other possible problems with unfamiliar words… 🙂


    Comment by Kay Shapero — October 18, 2012 @ 2:44 am | Reply

  6. […] than one dictionary to determine whether a word is used correctly (see, e.g., the discussion on ultramontane in which Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th edition did not have the sense that […]


    Pingback by The Business of Editing: On My Bookshelf « An American Editor — October 22, 2012 @ 4:02 am | Reply

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