Tag Archives: definition

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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Redifining the OED: Aging Tome Commits Digital Hara-Kiri

dic·tio·nary
noun \ˈdik-shə-ˌner-ē, -ˌne-rē\
archaic: a reference book containing words alphabetically arranged along with information about their forms, pronunciations, functions, etymologies, meanings, and syntactical and idiomatic uses. Historically dictionaries were printed on paper and bound between leather covers. [see: book, library, reading, obsolete]

It’s been coming for a while now: the unbookification of the Oxford English Dictionary. The publisher told the Associated Press Sunday that the next version of the reference series might not be printed on paper, but only available to online subscribers at OED.com.

Nigel Portwood, chief executive of Oxford University Press, told The Sunday Times in an interview he didn’t think the newest edition will be printed. “The print dictionary market is just disappearing. It is falling away by tens of percent a year,” he said.

His comment related primarily to the full-length dictionary, but he said the convenience of the electronic format also is affecting demand for its shorter dictionaries.

It’s hard not to cringe at the idea of the OED, the world’s seminal authority on the English language, going out of print, but let’s be real for a minute. The full edition is 20 volumes, 22,000 pages and costs $995. Even if I had a grand to throw at a dictionary I wouldn’t have anywhere to put it. And I’m the kind of nerd who gazes fondly from across the room at her New Shorter OED like it’s a cute boy with glasses holding a puppy. Your average Joe isn’t going to consider dropping a G on a book of words.

The full volume has sold just 30,000 copies — since 1989. It was never a truly consumer product. But the website, which offers subscription-only access to the definitions of over half a million words for an annual fee of $295, gets 2 million hits a month. In an increasingly illiterate world, that’s pretty good.

Until you compare it to Twitter, which gets 100 times that. Sigh.

Google Game: Definition

dictionaryRecently, as I delighted over the sight of my brand new two-volume New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary stationed commandingly amongst the paperbacks and graphic novels on my bookshelf, I thought about how anachronistic a dictionary seems these days. Can you remember the last time you looked up a word in an actual, physical dictionary? (I can, but as we’ve well established I’m a severe dweeb.) Not that I don’t use the Web to look up words and synonyms; Merriam-Webster.com is one of the few buttons on my bookmark toolbar and it’s the quickest way, hands down.

So I figured, if I’m using online dictionaries and thesauri even while being nerdily enamored of the yellowed, brittle pages of my long-coverless Webster’s New World and the fragile leaves of my long-coveted OED, then most people probably go even more frequently, if not exclusively, to the Internet for definitions. And what are they most often looking up? To my surprise, when I typed “definition of” into Google, I found that people aren’t searching Cyberspace for mere meanings, they’re searching for Meaning.

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