The Grammarphobia Blog

Cardinal college

Q: I have a question about cardinals, not the baseball kind, but the Roman Catholic. Their title used to be inserted between a given name and a surname, as in “Francis, Cardinal Spellman.” But listening to coverage of the recent papal election, I realized that the custom seems to be about as extinct as people old enough to remember who Cardinal Spellman was. Is this usage just plain outmoded?

A: Well, the usage isn’t quite extinct, but it’s on the endangered list. For example, an article on the National Catholic Reporter website about the pope’s current trip to Brazil refers to the archbishop of Aparecida as “Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis.”

 When we arrived at the New York Times in the early 1980s, more than a dozen years after Cardinal Spellman’s death, the newspaper followed the style you’re asking about, minus the comma.

But in 1999, after we’d left the paper to write books full time, the Times style manual updated the usage and recommended putting the title in front of a cardinal’s given name.

Typically, the Times was late to accept this new usage. We have an old 1977 Associated Press stylebook that calls for putting the title first. It describes the old practice even then as archaic except in formal documents.

Today US news organizations generally put the title before a cardinal’s given name. And that includes the Catholic News Service. Here’s the beginning of a March 13, 2013, article by the CNS about the last papal election:

“VATICAN CITY (CNS)— Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, the leader of a large urban archdiocese in Latin America, was elected the 266th pope and took the name Francis.”

However, the Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.), which is widely used in book publishing, is still sticking with tradition. Chicago’s entry for religious titles includes this item: “Francis Cardinal George or, less formally, Cardinal George.”

As for the cardinals themselves, some put their titles at the beginning of their names and others put the titles between their given names and surnames. Most American cardinals still follow the old style, though there are exceptions.

The website of the Archdiocese of New York, for example, refers to its archbishop as Timothy Cardinal Dolan while the Archdiocese of Boston’s site refers to its archbishop as Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley.

The Archdiocese of Washington uses both styles on its Web pages. In the archbishop’s biography, for example, the heading refers to “Donald Cardinal Wuerl” and the text to “Cardinal Donald Wuerl.”

The English language pages of the Vatican website generally use the newer style, though the older usage is sometimes seen in headings.

In biographical notes for the College of Cardinals, for example, the archbishop of New York is referred to as “Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan” under the heading “DOLAN Card. Timothy Michael.” (The Vatican often abbreviates “cardinal” as “card.”)

The Vatican Information Service and L’Osservatore Romano, the semiofficial newspaper of the Vatican, also use the newer style in referring to cardinals.

So does the website of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. On a page listing the cardinals leading American dioceses, the archbishop of New York is “Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan.”

As for the word “cardinal” itself, the ultimate source is cardo, Latin for “hinge.” But what in heaven’s name could a hinge have to do with a cardinal?

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins explains that the “underlying idea is that something of particular, or ‘cardinal,’ importance is like a hinge on which all else depends.”

Ayto says the English word is derived from the ecclesiastical Latin term cardinalis, “which in the early church denoted simply a clergyman attached to a church, as a door is attached to hinges.”

The Latin term, he writes, “gradually rose in dignity” through the Middle Ages as it was applied to the “princes of the Roman Catholic church.”

The earliest example of the English noun in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1125 entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, a collection of Old English writings that date back as far as the ninth century:

On thes ilces gæres sende se papa of Rome to thise lande an cardinal Johan of Crème.” (Modern English: “In the same year, the Pope of Rome sent to this land Cardinal Johan of Crème.” We changed the Old English letters thorn and eth to “th.”)

In this first OED citation for “cardinal,” the title appears before the given name. So how did it get between the given name and the surname?

Merrill Perlman, a former colleague of ours at the Times and a language maven for the Columbia Journalism Review, traces the practice to the naming customs of the aristocracy.

In her Feb. 21, 2012, Language Corner column, she writes that as the cardinals consolidated their power, “they were often referred to the way the nobility was.”

“Just as Alfred Lord Tennyson had ‘Lord’ as his middle name, so did the cardinals have ‘Cardinal’ as theirs,” she says. “And just as Tennyson was sometimes referred to as ‘Alfred, Lord Tennyson,’ so were Cardinals sometimes called ‘John, Cardinal Smith.’ ”

As part of the changes that began with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, she adds, Popes John XXIII and Paul VI “started to refer to cardinals in less-formal proceedings as ‘Cardinal John Smith.’ ”

It was left to the individual cardinals, however, to choose how to refer to themselves. In a way, the ones who chose the new terminology were oiling a squeaky hinge and returning to a simpler past.

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