Headline Limns Limits of Popular Comprehension

I saw a short article on MerriamWebster.com that caught my eye the other day. Yeah, I hang out on a dictionary website, what of it? Anyways, it said there was a spike in lookings-up of the word “limn” earlier this month after it was used in the headline of a Baltimore Sun article: Opposing votes limn differences in race. The unusual, even esoteric word choice got people’s attention, for better or worse.

One reader described the usage as “unbelievably arrogant and patronizing.” Others thanked the paper for expanding their vocabularies.Responding to the controversy, the paper’s eminent blogger about language, John McIntyre, pointed out that it “may not have been the shrewdest choice for the front page.” However, he added, “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.”

Limn, says MW, means “to outline in sharp detail” or “to describe,” by the way.

I’m torn here. Being a word nerd and constant mourner of the English language (like the Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten), I praise a paper for introducing some nutrition into what junk food writing people usually devour. But I don’t think a headline is where you ought to do it. A headline — of a news story, anyway — is supposed to be the bit that tells you, in as few words as possible, what you’ll get from the article to follow. Throw in a $10 word and you’re defeating the purpose for a large majority of potential readers. You may even alienate some of those readers and lose valuable eyeballs.

You got to sneak it in there, like a pill in a dog treat. Trick folks into wisenin’ up. Insinuate a new word or usage into an easily apprehendable context and maybe you’ll manage to surreptitiously augment a vocabulary or two.

Lookups on Merriam-Webster spiked on September 8, 2010.

Why:

On September 7, The Baltimore Sun ran the headline, “Opposing votes limn difference in race.”

That unusual word choice ended up making headlines of its own.

One reader described the usage as “unbelievably arrogant and patronizing.” Others thanked the paper for expanding their vocabularies.

Responding to the controversy, the paper’s eminent blogger about language, John McIntyre, pointed out that it “may not have been the shrewdest choice for the front page.” However, he added, “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.”

Limn means “to outline in sharp detail” or “to describe.” It’s a close relative of illuminate.

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One response to “Headline Limns Limits of Popular Comprehension

  1. All I know is the Baltimore Sun was just one letter away from violating Seven-Up’s trademark on Limon.

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