This article, by Erin McKean, originally appeared on The Boston Globe site on 9/19/10. It will be of interest to any writer who’s ever wrestled over word choice: how esoteric is too esoteric?
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.