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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