Paramount vs. Tantamount

By Mark Nichol

What’s the difference between paramount and tantamount? The distinction is of paramount importance; it’s tantamount to being right or wrong.

Paramount, from the Anglo-French word paramont, derived from the Latin phrase per ad montem, literally translated as “up the mountain,” means “supreme.” It’s also used (rarely) as a noun to refer to a supreme ruler. Tantamount was originally a noun, translated into English from the Anglo-French phrase tant amunter, meaning “to amount to as much,” and means “equivalent.” It is seldom used — more’s the pity, because it is such a grand word — in such phrases as “tantamount to treason.”

This grandiloquence, and the word’s resemblance to paramount, may mislead writers into assuming it has a lofty sense like its counterpart.

As you might have guessed, the noun amount, meaning “sum,” also derives from the Latin word for mountain. Another word with the element -amount is catamount, a nearly obsolete synonym for cougar or lynx that is a compression of the term cat-a-mountain.

Closed-compound verbs with the root word mount include dismount (“remove oneself from a high position, as a horse or a piece of gymnastic equipment,” or “take apart”) — demount is a rarely used variant — remount (“get up on again,” or “revert”), and surmount (“climb,” “excel,” or “overcome,” or “be at the top of”).

Seamount is a noun referring to an underwater mountain whose summit does not reach sea level. (If it did, it would be called an island.) Dismount and remount also have noun forms; the former refers to the concluding movement in a gymnastics routine, and the latter denotes a horse that replaces a rider’s previous one.

An interesting side note: In archery, “lord paramount” and “lady paramount” are terms for an official in charge of an archery tournament, or for a ceremonial leader of such an event, equivalent to a parade grand marshal. The terms originated in the feudal era, when a lord paramount, one not subordinate to a member of the nobility of greater rank, was required to provide trained longbowmen in the event of war, and officiated at archery tournaments. (The title “lord paramount” is known to fans of the television series A Game of Thrones and the series of novels on which it is based.)

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5 Responses to “Paramount vs. Tantamount”

  • Ken

    This reminds me of a personal annoyance that I see (or hear) almost every day, particularly on TV news. The newscasters often refer to a “huge amount of people”, for example. To my mind, this should be rephrased as “a huge number of people”.

    The simple test that can be done when you’re not sure which phrase to use is to ask yourself this question: can the thing you’re talking about be counted, or can it only be piled up?

    For example, if you’re talking about soil, it would be correct to say “a huge amount of soil” and ridiculous to say “a huge number of soil”. If you were talking about sugar, on the other hand, you could say the bowl had a large amount of sugar in it, or contained a large number of sugar cubes.

    The clue’s in the word ‘amount’; it refers, literally, to a mound. You wouldn’t pile up people in a mound, you’d estimate their number, or actually count them. So you could refer to a huge crowd (which is, in effect, a ‘mound’ of people), or alternatively, many people (individuals).

    This seems obvious to me, and I don’t know if it’s some sort of rule or just common sense, but I cringe every time I hear a supposedly intelligent person saying something like, “There were a large amount of partygoers at the function …”.

    Am I alone in this, or does it annoy anyone else??

  • Lena

    So much more to learn besides Paramount and Tantamount. Interesting!

  • Sally

    Your comment about ‘seamount’ brought to mind a bit of history.

    In Standard Chinese, ‘mountain’ is ‘shan’ and in Cantonese it is ‘saan.’ Off the coast of Guangzhou (Canton) in southern China are many islands that are in fact drowned mountains. So ‘saan’ came to be used among the peasantry for ‘island’ or ‘overseas country.’
    When gold was discovered in California in 1849, the Chinese who went there to make their fortunes spoke of going to “Kum Saan = Gold Mountain.” In 1851, more gold was found near Ballarat in Victoria. Then San Franscisco / California / America became “Kao Kum Saan = Old Gold Mountain” and Melbourne / Victoria / Australia was “Sim Kum Saan = New Gold Mountain.”

  • Nick B

    @Ken

    You are right and wrong. You described accurately when to use a “number” of something, but you can also use “amount” when talking about a number of things that are thought of as a aggregate, such as the number of people in a crowd. It is perfectly acceptable, for example, to say that a certain “amount” of people will do one thing or another in a given situation. People is a plural count noun, but in many situations we do not presume to know the count. In many cases, amount may be used alternatively to number, but not the other way around. As you said, you would not say number of snow, but you would say amount of snow. You could, however say either the number of snow flakes, or the amount of snow flakes.

  • Nick B

    To clarify, the use of amount in place of number is considered grammatically acceptable when the number of things, while countable, are thought of as a mass, or aggregate. Amount of people on a playground is incorrect, but amount of people that might be in jeopardy is okay. Amount of dollar bills is incorrect, but amount of tax dollars is okay, etc. Same difference as less and fewer, one of my own personal peeves.

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