Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Torn Limn from Limn

The Baltimore Sun raised a ruckus among its readers by printing a certain four-letter word in a front-page headline on Tuesday. Here is the offending headline:

Opposing votes limn differences in race

Limn (pronounced like "limb") means "trace the shape of," "make a portrait of," or simply "describe." It isn't a word you see every day in newspaper headlines, and that bothered some Baltimoreans.

The headline, for a story about candidates for the position of Baltimore County executive, particularly rankled Carol N. Shaw, who wrote this in a letter to the editor:

I had to keep looking at it again and again. ... I consider myself an educated person. I graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Maryland, College Park some years ago with a degree in international relations/economics. I have never heard of the word "limn." ... To put a word like "limn" in the headline for the lead article on the front page of this newspaper seems to me to be unbelievably arrogant and patronizing.

Though The Sun reported that Shaw was just one of many who complained, the paper printed other letters from readers who disagreed with Shaw's characterization of the word's use as "arrogant and patronizing." Here is Susanne Ogaitis-Jones:

I think it's great that The Sun challenged us with vocabulary and provided a good way for me demonstrate a skill to my kids that I talk much about — looking up definitions.

And Clive Graham:

I too was intrigued by the headline, "Opposing votes limn difference in race." But having looked it up and learned the word, I smiled, moved on and was not only grateful to The Sun for giving me a new word but also in admiration for the way that little four-letter word efficiently filled the narrow column space. Keep it up.

John E. McIntyre, a Sun copy editor (and an old friend of the Visual Thesaurus), noted on his blog that limn most frequently shows up in arts coverage, so it might not have been the most familiar term to drop into a front-page political headline. Nonetheless, he rallied to the defense of the word:

Speaking as a headline writer myself, though not the author of this one, I heartily endorse all sorts of short verbs that are neither scatological nor obscene. Speaking as a language maven, I applaud when people consult dictionaries to add another little brick to the wall of their vocabularies. Now that you know what it means, it is yours forever.

But limn — which began as a variant of lumine, from Latin illuminare meaning "to embellish or light up" — has engendered mixed reactions over the years even from literary types. Some writers love using the word: New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani is such a serial abuser that one lit-blogger called her "The First Lady of Limn." Naysayers have included David Foster Wallace, who mused in one of his notorious footnotes that he might like to use limn if it didn't "end up seeming just off-the-charts pretentious."

Washington Post book critic Michael Dirda leveled what must surely be the most furious objection to limn, in an opinionated note included in the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus:

This is the phoniest word in the critic's vocabulary, aside from luminous to describe a writer's prose (and usually rather gushy prose at that). People are unsure of limn's pronunciation, uncertain of its actual meaning, and generally pretentious when they use it. Most of the time journalists resort to limn because they want something fancier than describe. Yet while describe slips smoothly by without calling much attention to itself, limn jumps off the page to strut about and show off. It's one of those words that want to be urbane and debonair but are somehow really ugly, pushy, and nouveau riche. But maybe I'm going out on a limb by saying that. So let's just call limn fundamentally, almost viscerally, rebarbative.

I find limn a bit odd outside of artsy contexts, but it doesn't strike me as "fundamentally, almost viscerally, rebarbative" (rebarbative means "serving or tending to repel," if you didn't know). I'm with John McIntyre: let the headline writers have their non-scatological four-letter word, and let newspaper readers run to the dictionary every once in a while.

What do you think of limn? Arrogant, patronizing, pretentious, ugly, or just fine? Let us know in the comments below.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday September 10th 2010, 1:26 AM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
These individual reactions to limn seem, to me, to say much more about each person than the word. It is a fascinating set of responses. I too agree with John McIntyre: it is not a crime to make people stretch to greet a new word. And, Michael Dirda's anti-limn diatribe, that concludes with his use of the word rebarbative is, unintentionally I am sure, very funny.

I am grateful for each opportunity to add a word I had not known before to my vocabulary. I knew limn; I know it better now for the fuss. Michael Chabon, in a San Francisco City Arts & Lectures response to why he uses so many unfamiliar words in his writing said—and I paraphrase—that he wants to keep our language vibrant and full. I agree with him. My vote? Limn is just fine.
Friday September 10th 2010, 1:33 AM
Comment by: Noel B.
"Rebarbative"!? what an ostentatious response to a neat usage of a appropriate word. Rates about the same as 13 year olds' accusations of "You've swallowed the dictionary Mrs B" in response to a "new" word encountered in the teacher's instruction.
Friday September 10th 2010, 1:49 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I suppose it's one thing to know the word and not like it; I'm sure we all have a collection of such words in our heads, words that make us mutter "snoot" to ourselves when we hear someone use them. But it seems odd to trumpet one's ignorance of a word, and especially to do so -- as the now-infamous Carol N. Shaw did -- in such a way as to seem somehow both pretentions ("magna cum laude"!) AND uninformed. The argument of "I don't know this word, therefore you're wrong to use it" seems like it should get very little traction, even assuming the opiner didn't manage to come off sounding foolish.

I'm in technical writing, and I actually subscribe in OUR writing to the idea that we shouldn't be sending our readers to the dictionary. ( http://bit.ly/boVXHp) However, the focus of our writing is different than that of a newspaper. Moreover, we know already that a substantial percentage of our audience is reading English as a foreign language. We therefore do our utmost to reduce barriers to comprehending material that even native speakers tend to find slow going under the best of circumstances. Our readers, we figure, have enough problems without having to reach for the dictionary. If we do use vocabulary that our readers don't comprehend, it's certainly not because we're arrogant or patronizing.

The oddest part of Carol N. Shaw's letter to the The Sun, I thought, was her description of trying to find the word "limn":

"... I finally went to the computer and did a spell check. It checked out but I then had to run it through two thesauri to come up with definitions of this word."

Since when does one look up words in thesauruses?
Friday September 10th 2010, 3:10 AM
Comment by: Trucker (Bloomington, IN)
Hooray for the Dictionary!
Friday September 10th 2010, 3:14 AM
Comment by: Ken S. (Dayton, OH)
I now have a new word in my vocabulary, and I'm perfectly pleased to have encountered it via a newspaper headline (and Visual Thesaurus) !
Friday September 10th 2010, 4:01 AM
Comment by: Rob C. (Breda Netherlands)
The point of a newspaper headline is to make you want to read the article and I strongly suspect it was quite effective at that. The headline is also neither inaccurate nor misleading, even if you don't know the word 'limn'.

So I'd say it served its purpose well.
Friday September 10th 2010, 7:32 AM
Comment by: Ravi K.
Don't like the word much less its use in this headline.
Friday September 10th 2010, 7:43 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)
"Having therefore engaged the limner (for what could I do?) our next deliberation was, to show the superiority of our taste in the attitudes. As for our neighbour's family, there were seven of them; and they were drawn with seven oranges, a thing quite out of taste, no variety in life, no composition in the world. We desired to have something in a higher style, and after many debates, at length came to a unanimous resolution, of being drawn together, in one large historical familypiece.”

From ‘English Literature for Boys and Girls’ published in 1909, a book by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (a book in which limner is used)

Now, when I do not know a word, I immediately consult the dictionary; when I know a word and I like it I try to find out in what literary works was used, as it always can be found in a book I did not read, or if I read it gives me pleasure to read again at least the passages that contain the word.
Interesting article, as it sent me to search for literary works using ‘limn’, and in the process I learned technical words too: limnograph [′lim•nə‚graf] (engineering) - A recording made on a limnimeter, where limnimeter [lim′nim•əd•ər] (engineering) is a type of tide gage for measuring lake level variations.

I cannot see how it was possible for Carol N. Shaw to see the word limn “unbelievably arrogant and patronizing” when it was a word, with its different forms (limn, limner), known, once upon a time, even by boys and girls! Apart from this, one should be always grateful for being forced (consult the dictionary) to learn a new beautiful word! But then, one has to love language, as, I suppose, we, all posting on this site, do.
Friday September 10th 2010, 9:03 AM
Comment by: Federico E. (Camuy, PR)
I must confess limn stumped me, too. But I'm not about to start parading my titles and my awards, as Carol N. Shaw puzzlingly did, to criticize its use. If anything, she could've said her experience with the word (lack of experience, to be precise) made limb an unusual word. And it is: Merriam-Webster's Unabridged (in a note under represent) says it's "chiefly a literary equivalent of depict or delineate." Then again, MWU quotes several publications that use it, among them Newsweek, not necessarily the abode of snooty savants.

With regard to why it was used, its brevity was probably one of the reasons, but avoiding an obnoxious internal rhyme was probably what clinched it. A short, more accessible headline would've been this one: "Opposing votes trace differences in race." But there's the annoying trace-race rhyme. Words like represent, depict, highlight and present would've been accesible, but not short enough. In comes limn, with its attendant ire.

A "proper" grasp of vocabulary is always tricky. We plod through the vastness of words led by our tastes, and so we are often stunned to see someone not know a word we thought was familiar. Maybe he didn't read the five books we found the word in, but he did read dozens of others from which we haven't culled their own share of unusual words.
Friday September 10th 2010, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Michelle B. (Stroudsburg, PA)
I quite like how well limn fit for the sake of the headline. Encountering new words in the body of an article is fine too as long as the article is not so peppered with them as to significantly slow my comprehension. I don't want to plod through the news. I just want to read it and move on. I'm much more amenable to finding new vocabulary in pleasure reading. In fact, I really enjoy finding new words in such a context especially when they lend to the rhythm or feel of the piece. Rebarbative? Now there's a word that just trips off the tongue!
Friday September 10th 2010, 10:14 AM
Comment by: David C. (Carrboro, NC)
Newspapers limn community intellect. Send those headline writers to North Carolina. I have written several letters to the News & Observer here -- and I am planning on another one in a few moments -- suggesting that they actually want to make their readers stupid.

Most of my complaints are about non-news (sports, faith, lachrymose human interest) articles that show up on the front page. In my view they are guaranteed to repel corporations, other smart transients, and people like me, who believe the daily newspaper to be an important instrument for literacy, conversation, and citizen participation. There are entire sections appropriated to sports, faith, and tear-inducing life stories, so editors should use them.

The front page is for the construction of intelligent, informed citizenship. "Limn" is powerful in this instance because it appears in a context that requires second thoughts. As usual, it is in the second, contextual thinking that the value appears. Context is the least-valued and most important element of information, and it is always the indicator of thoughtful journalism. Of course, there is the risk that readers will ignore the news and simply discuss elegant prose.
Friday September 10th 2010, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Janet D.
Thanks to VT I now know how to correctly pronounce the word! I already knew the meaning of limn from reading but had not heard it in conversation.
Friday September 10th 2010, 11:55 AM
Comment by: Kevin
I applaud the editors conviction in printing the word. Though I must confess the word does not have the clever ring that is associated with my favorite headlines. As a psychologist, My reaction to the reactions of readers resonates with kcecelia - reactions say something about the reactors.
Friday September 10th 2010, 1:30 PM
Comment by: noblsavaj (San Antonio, TX)
I would say that it was Greek to me, but it's Middle English from Latin, now that I looked it up.

NoblSavaj is a grammatical anarchist. He says, "Any series of gestures, guttural utterances or imagery that communicates the intended message to the intended audience is valid language." Headlines that send people running to the dictionary (or, more likely, on to the next distraction) may not clearly, at least immediately, communicate.
Friday September 10th 2010, 1:37 PM
Comment by: Becky C.
I applaud the Sun! I had seen the word only as the name of a great SF furniture store and really didn't know the meaning until today. The name for the store makes sense now and I feel much more "illuminated" myself. As for the naysayers, Carol N. Shaw is just sooooo well educated, she couldn't find the word in a dictionary? And, I really do not think it necessary to provide your curriculum vitae just to write a letter about your "dismay" at the use of a certain word.
Heavens, one would think that asking people to stretch a little, instead of serving the lowest common denominator, is outside the realm of newspapers.
Friday September 10th 2010, 8:13 PM
Comment by: j3n (Western, MA)
I'm with Ben Zimmer: "I'm with John McIntyre: let the headline writers have their non-scatological four-letter word, and let newspaper readers run to the dictionary every once in a while."
Friday September 10th 2010, 10:27 PM
Comment by: Kathy J. (Onalaska, WA)
"I can't understand this. What's wrong with him?"

Now THAT's arrogant! :D
Saturday September 11th 2010, 4:56 AM
Comment by: John M.
I strongly support the position taken by Carol N. Shaw concerning the use of the word "limn " in that I, with my BS and MS in Education, am also appalled when someone uses a word, even in ordinary conversation, a word with which I am not familiar. My irritation and indignation at this practice commenced roughly at the same time as I began to think of myself as well educated. I must oppose anything that shakes or weakens that firm conviction of mine. I long for the day when Orwell's 1984
dictionary reaches its final edition at which point some thoughts
will not be possible and those thoughts that are possible can only be expressed in one way. I nominate Carol N. Shaw as the editor of that
longed for the smaller the better book!
Saturday September 11th 2010, 6:59 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
This discussion of the word "limn" reminded me of Emily Dickinson for some reason, and a phrase sticks in my mind that she wrote poems that limn the world (or something) like water color paintings. Not being ostentatious or anything, but I have loved this word for years, maybe because I connect it with Miss Emily. It feels like tracing something gently along the edges with a finely sharpened pencil. Looking for the Dickinson reference, I found an article with the title "Phantoms Limn"--referring to how photography (new in her day) may have had a psychological effect on Dickinson's poetry. Neat idea that the images in the photograph are like phantoms that limn their traces in the mind but don't really exist in the three dimensional world--like phantom limbs. Given the title of Ben's essay and the word play in this critical analysis, it seems that the word "limn" invites punning. Amazing that a simple little word can evoke strong reactions. (The article I mentioned above was written by Adam Frank from the University of British Colombia. I forgot the journal title and other information. I'll post it if anyone is interested in reading it. But easy to find using "limn and Dickinson" as search terms.)
Saturday September 11th 2010, 8:13 AM
Comment by: Kip (Brookfield, WI)
Pure projection on the part of those who were offended by this simple, clean, and mono-syllabic gem. Thanks to the Sun and ThinkMap.
Saturday September 11th 2010, 8:35 AM
Comment by: warren G.
I'm pro-limn!!
Saturday September 11th 2010, 8:52 AM
Comment by: Phil S. (Thornton, CO)
I am sorry for those who cannot enjoy the use and increase of their vocabulary. Too many today only have diminutive plebeian vocabularies and create an uncivilized community when they speak. Hopefully our papers can continue to stimulate the minds of society to run to their dictionaries or at best learn more by plugging that unknown word into the Visual Thesaurus. 
Saturday September 11th 2010, 12:08 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I am most surprised by individuals who have gone to the trouble of acquiring advanced degrees, yet choose to put a halt to learning a new four letter word, or to complain of the work required to learn its meaning.

I had the meaning, but needed help with the pronunciation, like some others here. I'd always thought of it as being pronounced 'lime'.

'rebarbative'! I loved that. Though I disagreed with the point of view of that writer, I enjoyed the way he made his point with that word.

For anyone interested, there's a great little program on a computer that just requires you to click on a word to get a definition...

And there's VT! Too bad the C.S. had neither! LOL
Saturday September 11th 2010, 8:25 PM
Comment by: mac
if we care about words we should be sent to the dictionary more frequently. no. that's wrong. we should want to be sent to the dictionary. even if we have swallowed Mister Webster's noble work and know all words therein, just wait. like a bus, there will be more coming.
in any case, what i wrote has little to do with the conflict. the point is: language. the point of which is communication. did limn help or confuse?
did it-- wait for it-- did it communicate. all-in-all, it was probably a disservice to the reader. bury limn in the body of the story. i think the word the Sun was looking for was: define or illustrate. no. not illustrate for a headline. now that i'm trying to second guess them, i can see their difficulties. but surely, not limn.
Monday September 13th 2010, 10:49 PM
Comment by: Wood F.
If the headline writers were going for conciseness and clarity, how about "show?" Limn is a beautiful off-the-beaten-path word, but that is a terrible headline regardless of whether the reader knows what it means or not.

I'm with David Foster Wallace. Although his carping about pretentiousness would have been a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, if he weren't such a genius.
Monday September 13th 2010, 11:51 PM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Limn is well known among design-conscious San Francisco residents as the name of a home-furnishings store ( www.limn.com) that specializes in the innovative and the avant-garde. (And the expensive.) The "about" page of the business's website gives two definitions, the one the Sun used and this less-common one: "the multicolor shimmer above a body of water that lasts for only moments before the sun sets." An indelible image for a distinctive store.
Wednesday September 29th 2010, 5:27 AM
Comment by: Bernadette H. (London United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Headlines are written under intense pressure as to their their length. Considering this, I found 'limn' to be an elegant and effective solution.

But mostly this debate leaves me wondering: How could this headline have been written otherwise and better, to convey the same meaning, and in as few characters?
Friday November 5th 2010, 2:08 PM
Comment by: Lyn P.
Such a tempest over a headline *G*! Did it communicate? Not likely. Did it make some read the article regardless of the ambiguity? Likely. Did I learn something? Yes, as a matter of fact. Love it when I finally log in and read such lovely little gems...thanks VT!

..."the multicolor shimmer above a body of water that lasts for only moments before the sun sets." An indelible image... Now, that's quite a jump into imagination from such a little word.
Friday April 15th 2011, 12:53 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
I've always loved the word "limn" so find this all funny as heck, especially since I guess the odds of knowing "rebarbative" and not "limn" are low. Maybe I say that since I knew the former but not the latter; thanks, Mr. Dirda, for that irony.

Bravo to the Sun for headlining it and to Ben Zimmer for illuminating the controversy (or should I say "limning" it?).

Google's Ngram Viewer tells us something about usage in "lots of books"--as in many of the millions they have scanned. If you look up "limn" in American English from 1800 to 2000, you'll see a peak in usage around 1835 [ http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=limn&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=5&smoothing=3] with it sharply dropping off by 2000. British English is similar but with higher usage and a peak around 1810. Try it with any variation of "English" choices and you'll see that this is a delightfully old-fashioned word.

Most interesting of all, so is "rebarbative"! Check it out; a similar profile. Ngrams may become the next parlour game. (A phrase peaking in the late '50s.)
Saturday April 16th 2011, 9:42 PM
Comment by: marcia F. (oklahoma city, OK)
When I was 13, 50 years ago, I went to live with my grandparents in Naples Florida. We lived quite close to the beach and would take walks at sunset. We would watch for the very rare colorful show just before the sun set below the horizon. Sadly we never saw it. They knew people that swore it was real. I have always remembered those walks and yearning to see that miraculous phenomenon. How wonderful! I now have a name for it. Oh thank you, thank you!
Monday April 18th 2011, 10:20 AM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
I confess to having used "limn" quite often to describe what happens in a story or book. I first encountered "limn" while working for a small press and deduced what it meant immediately.
Sunday October 9th 2011, 1:30 AM
Comment by: Robin V.
It is necessary that a newspaper challenge their readers. So there should be regular head lines with the use of words such as limn and celerity. We should strive to be a nation of scholars.
Saturday February 25th 2012, 4:00 PM
Comment by: NINA M.
LIMM is fine.
LIMM is literate.
Some folks are just too full of themselves.

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