Maintaining Editorial Consistency in a Changing World

Few people will accept that up means down simply because you say so in writing, not even if you’re perfectly consistent about it. Still, when it comes to editorial principles, consistency is second only to being right.

Editors understand this, so we look things up all the time. We’ll check the weather app on our phones while standing outside in the rain. Then we’ll look up to the clouds for confirmation.

Up can usually be counted on to remain up, and rain will generally get you wet, but when it comes to matters of style—capitalization, hyphens, and all the rest—even your go-to style guide and dictionary, supplemented by Google, may not provide a conclusive answer. Then what do you do?

Let’s look at a real-world example.

The Case of the Shifting Weltanschauung

The word Weltanschauung is German for “worldview.” That’s how a writer or editor following Chicago style might render that sentence in the year 2020. The italics signal that Weltanschauung is a word used as a word; otherwise, the concept known as Weltanschauung is familiar enough in English-language contexts that italics are unnecessary. You’ll learn this from CMOS 7.54.

Paragraph 7.54 will also tell you that German nouns—which would be capitalized in a German-language context, where all nouns are capitalized (see CMOS 11.39)—can be lowercased in an English-language context. And it features “weltanschauung,” lowercase w, as a primary example.

No, the editors at the University of Chicago Press hadn’t decided to throw out their dictionaries. Nor had we made a unilateral decision to wrest the German language into shape by making it conform to English-language conventions. When the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary was first published, in 2003, this is what the relevant entry said:

welt·an·schau·ung \ˈvelt-ˌän-ˌshau̇-əŋ\ n, pl weltanschauungs \-​əŋz\ or welt·an·schau·ung·en \‑əŋ-​ən\ often cap [G, fr. Welt world + Anschauung view] (1868) : a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world esp. from a specific standpoint

Fast-forward to now. To save you a click, here’s the info from the current entry for the noun in the dictionary at (the online successor to the Collegiate):

Welt·​an·​schau·​ung \ˈvelt-ˌän-ˌshau̇-əŋ\
variants: or less commonly weltanschauung

plural Weltanschauungen \ˈvelt-​ˌän-​ˌshau̇-​əŋ-​ən\ also Weltanschauungs \ˈvelt-​ˌän-​ˌshau̇-​əŋz\

: a comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint : WORLDVIEW

First Known Use of Weltanschauung
1868, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for Weltanschauung
German, from Welt world + Anschauung view

Not only has weltanschauung with a lowercase w been demoted to the status of “less common” variant, but the primary plural form has changed also. When did these updates occur, and what do they mean?

Thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, we can determine that the lowercase entry persisted at until as late as August 3, 2018. By June 20, 2019 (the next available “snapshot” of that page), the entry had been updated to reflect its current form.

In other words, the change happened too late for the seventeenth edition of CMOS to register it, or to reflect on its implications.

“Often Cap,” “Or,” and “Also”

Let’s take a moment to decode the dictionary.

According to the front matter of the 2003 Collegiate, the “often cap” label in the 2003 definition means—as “often capitalized” does now (in the online version there’s more room to write)—that “the word is as likely to be capitalized as not, that it is as acceptable with an uppercase initial as it is with one in lowercase.” In such cases, Chicago’s editors usually choose the lowercase form of the entry word.

The capital W in the latest entry, however, means that the word is now usually capitalized.

The other labels that matter are “or” and “also.” The “or” between plural forms in the 2003 entry means that weltanschauungs and weltanschauungen were at that time considered to be equal variants, or almost equal: they’re out of alphabetical order (en would normally come before s), which means that the anglicized plural ending in s occurred slightly more often than the Germanic version with en.

By contrast, the “also” between plural forms in the current entry means that Weltanschauungs, once the primary equal variant, has been demoted to secondary variant status—that is, it’s now the less common of the two plural forms. Finally, the meaning of “or less commonly” before weltanschauung is obvious: the lowercase form of the word has been eclipsed by the uppercase.

So the first-listed forms in Chicago’s go-to dictionary for a term first used in English in 1868 (the OED cites the same date) have changed, in less than twenty years, from weltanschauung (sing.) and weltanschauungs (pl.) to Weltanschauung (sing.) and Weltanschauungen (pl.).

What’s an editor to do?

“World View” as of 1961

The world was a different place sixty years ago. Here’s the entry for weltanschauung in Merriam-Webster’s 1961 Third New International Dictionary (the famously descriptive and therefore somewhat controversial third edition of its unabridged dictionary, of which the Collegiate dictionaries were then considered to be abridgments):

welt·an·schau·ung \ˈveltˈänˌshau̇əŋ, -au̇·(ˌ)u̇ŋ\ n, pl weltanschauungs \-ŋz\ or welt·an·schau·ung·en \-​ŋ​ən\ often cap [G, lit., world view, fr. welt world (alter. of OHG weralt, worold) + anschauung view, . . . ] 1 : a conception of the course of events in and of the purpose of the world as a whole forming a philosophical view or apprehension of the universe : the idea embodied in a cosmology : outlook on the world — called also world view 2 : philosophy of life : IDEOLOGY 3 : the cosmologic conception of society and its institutions held by its members

My ellipsis at the end of the bracketed part at the beginning of the definition spares you the Third’s expanded etymology. But notice in the part that I have reproduced how the German nouns welt and anschauung are lowercase—clearly an editorial decision to disregard German capitalization.

This lowercase entry for weltanschauung was apparently new, as was the etymology. A revised 1953 version of the second edition of Webster’s New International (first published in 1934 and the precursor to the Third) listed Weltanschuung, plural Weltanschauungen, and offered no alternatives:

Welt'an'schau'ung, n.; pl. Weltanschauungen. [G.] Literally, world view; a conception of the course of events in, and of the purpose of, the world as a whole, forming a philosophical view or apprehension of the universe; the idea embodied in a cosmology.

As this entry reveals, however, the 1961 Third’s two-word “world view” was not new (though the separate entry in the Third for the English-language compound—which simply refers the reader to the entry for weltanschauung—was new). We wouldn’t get a one-word “worldview” until the publication of Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate in 1983 (to date, the Unabridged, the online successor to the Third, still lists “world view” as two words).

In sum, by 1961 the German word Weltanschauung had been anglicized—by becoming lowercase and acquiring the s plural ending. Meanwhile, “world view” was on the verge of becoming “worldview,” which makes sense for the translation of a word inspired by a language known for its elaborate (by English standards) one-word compounds. (The classic example is Schadenfreude.)

Yet here we are, decades later, and Chicago’s go-to dictionary has reverted to a more faithful rendition of the original German spelling of a relatively well-known borrowing. Is this a trend?

Maybe not. Because you’ll still find nouns like autobahn and doppelgänger and gestalt and leitmotif and putsch and realpolitik and schadenfreude listed in lowercase in Merriam-Webster, in most cases without mention of capitalization or of plural forms. (The entries for schadenfreude and realpolitik get an “often capitalized” label; the entry for gestalt includes the plurals gestalts and gestalten, with the latter being a secondary “also” variant.)

So, for the sake of consistency with other familiar German terms that might make an appearance in an English-language context, it might be best to go with lowercase weltanschuung after all, right? Or should you follow the dictionary?

Decision Time

Whatever you decide to do as a writer or an editor in a situation like this one, where the ground seems to be shifting beneath your chair, be consistent about it.

For example, if you prefer to follow the latest dictionary entry and render Weltanschauung with its German capital W, then do so each time (except in a direct quotation that features lowercase). While you’re at it, use the en plural ending rather than s. The capital W is meaningless except to signal the Germanness of the noun; mixing German-style capitalization with an English plural ending would be the definition of inconsistent.

But consider your audience. Will the capital W in Weltanschauung make sense to your readers if they find lowercase realpolitik elsewhere in your text? What about leitmotif, which in German would be Leitmotiv (with a capital L and ending in a v)? And what about those plural endings? In English, autobahns is obviously the plural of autobahn, but what about autobahnen? You may ultimately decide that weltanschauung and weltanschauungs would best serve your audience and subject matter.

On the other hand, the 2020s are not the 1960s. Ask your phone to spell the German word for “world view”: if you use Google Translate, it will oblige with Weltanschauung—with a capital W. Editors and readers have more comprehensive access to knowledge today than even twenty years ago. Any casual reader of Wikipedia is likely to notice sooner or later that German nouns are capitalized (as the English-language articles on any of the German terms mentioned in this post would reveal).

Or maybe the smartest thing would be simply to write “worldview”—the English translation—glossing it as a translation of Weltanschauung (capitalized as a German noun) the first time it appears. The existence of such a literal and straightforward translation makes the German word superfluous, and possibly a bit pretentious.

* * *

Everything above assumes that the German term is appropriate in the first place. If not, then a phrase like “view of the world” or “outlook” should work just as well—and would align with the current era’s plainspoken zeitgeist. Or should that be Zeitgeist?* 🙃

* The entry for zeitgeist in Merriam-Webster is lowercase with an “often capitalized” label, for now.

Top image: Upside Down, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Editor’s Corner posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Russell Harper BitmojiRussell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.


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