Limning a controversy

Hate that headline? You have company

It is probably a bit too harsh to call those upset by The Baltimore Sun’s recent use of the word limn in a headline word-haters, but I assume they’d be even more offended by the fancy word misologists.

If you didn’t catch the (admittedly brief) controversy, it went a bit like this. On Sept. 7, The Baltimore Sun used the word limn in a front-page headline (“Opposing votes limn difference in race”). That same day, Carol N. Shaw sent a letter to the editor complaining about the paper’s use of the word, calling it “unbelievably arrogant and patronizing” to use a word that she, having graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Maryland, didn’t immediately understand.

Although the Sun has used the word limn twice before in headlines (and 47 times, total, in the paper’s history), those previous uses didn’t occasion much, if any, comment. The Sun’s level-headed and pragmatic grammar and usage blogger, John McIntyre, supported the use of limn in the headline, especially as it’s one of the limited stock of short verbs in English that are (as he put it) “neither scatological nor obscene.”

At first glance, it’s hard to see why limn should be considered verba non grata: It’s related, etymologically, to illuminate, and has been in use in English since the 1400s, at first to mean “to paint with gold or bright color” (as in illuminated manuscripts) and then (metaphorically) to mean painting a picture in words. That metaphorical use has proven to be irresistible to book reviewers, especially: Michiko Kakutani, the book reviewer for The New York Times, has been criticized for overuse of limn.

It’s not very frequent, but limn isn’t any more specialized or opaque than the words burgeon or kiosk, all of which were estimated by the Living Word Vocabulary (a 1981 vocabulary study) to be understood by less than a third of college graduates.

Ben Zimmer, writing on the Visual Thesaurus website, pointed out that limn, in particular, has come in for more than its fair share of abuse over the years: Michael Dirda, The Washington Post book critic, has called it an example of an “ugly, pushy” word; writer Ben Yagoda called it a word that has “never been said aloud in the history of English”; and David Foster Wallace admitted that limn could seem “just off-the-charts pretentious.” William Safire, back in 2002, called limn a “vogue word” and gave it a life span of “six more months.” (Here at the Globe, Page One editor Charles Mansbach says he’d avoid limning anything in a headline: “It probably would baffle too many readers.”)

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether limn is a reasonable word to expect readers to understand, the interesting part of this controversy is how clearly it divides people into two groups: those who feel intrigued and excited when they encounter a new word, and those who feel irritated or defensive.

Some of the latter would explain their irritation in terms of efficiency: why add another hurdle to comprehension by throwing in a word you’re not confident your audience will understand? And it’s true — a word that sticks out can distract a reader to the point of ignoring everything else that’s been written. But the dogged pursuit of the most-widely-understood word can leave both precision and elegance behind, resulting in colorless and boring writing.

Those who feel defensive are almost certainly reacting to years of assertions by word-lovers that a large vocabulary is a sign of an educated and cultured person. Hundreds of books and thousands of websites imply that a large vocabulary is the ticket to success in business and life. (One list of increase-your-vocabulary books states baldly: “It’s useless to be intelligent if you cannot express those ideas”; another suggests that a large vocabulary is necessary to be accepted as a “mature person.”) After all that hype, why are we surprised when the use of an unusual word is felt to be an implicit criticism of those who don’t immediately recognize it, a slur on their education, intellect, maturity, and literacy?

And there’s no denying an element of showoffishness is present in many uses of rare words. It would be peculiar if the all-too-human desire for status — the motivation behind name-dropping, wearing luxury brands, listening to obscure bands, or checking in to velvet-rope places on Foursquare — didn’t manifest itself in word choice, as well.

It shouldn’t be too hard to broker a truce, here, though. If the word-lovers can agree to throw in an acknowledgment whenever we use a geason word — one that’s rare or extraordinary — and the word-avoiders can agree to be a little less impatient with us when we do (and not take it personally), then problem solved. And we can all just paint — or limn — a happier world.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of


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