Tag Archives: merriam-webster

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.

Oxford’s Word of the Year: Unfriend

Monday the New Oxford American Dictionary named “unfriend” 2009’s word of the year.

unfriend – verb – To remove someone as a ‘friend’ on a social networking site such as Facebook.

As in, “I decided to unfriend my roommate on Facebook after we had a fight.”

“It has both currency and potential longevity,” notes Christine Lindberg, Senior Lexicographer for Oxford’s US dictionary program. “In the online social networking context, its meaning is understood, so its adoption as a modern verb form makes this an interesting choice for Word of the Year. Most “un-” prefixed words are adjectives (unacceptable, unpleasant), and there are certainly some familiar “un-” verbs (uncap, unpack), but “unfriend” is different from the norm. It assumes a verb sense of “friend” that is really not used (at least not since maybe the 17th century!). Unfriend has real lex-appeal.”

We’ve looked at the word “unfriend” before, and it’s not a wholly inappropriate choice. I do, however, imagine it’ll be somewhat disheartening to reflect on 2009 as the year that friendship lost its currency. Although, perhaps that’ll be better than always remembering it as the year that the dollar lost its currency.

Here are some of the runners-up. I took the liberty of coloring gray the ones I thought were stupid choices, because they’re idiotic, unremarkable or little-used in the vernacular, or, as in the cases of Ardi and death panel, a beneficiary of the recency effect.

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