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A word a week

Readers’ reactions to the use of limn in a headline showed that a fair number of people welcome the opportunity to enlarge their working vocabularies. The reactions of people who found limn irritating suggested that headlines on the front page might not be the ideal place to attempt that.

So, with my editors’ blessing, I am introducing a weekly feature, “In a Word,” on, that will present a word that my not be familiar to you, supplying definition, pronunciation, and etymology. This week’s is gnomic. You will also have an opportunity to use the word in a sentence in the comments section on the feature, and I will applaud the best one in the following week’s post. Have at it.



Add something; take something away. Here’s a free offer of a cliche you are welcome to purge from your writing: in the wake of. If you mean since something happened, or because something happened, just say so without resorting to this long-dead nautical metaphor. Now go about your business.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:16 AM | | Comments (10)


Oh, I love this! In your sentence example, I believe you meant "to believe what they wanted to hear" (not that), as I don't remember the Delphic Oracle curing deafness.

It's still ok to use the phrase about boats though, right?

"Down in the Inner Harbor, a duck industriously paddled in the wake of a garbage-skimming boat."

Not that I say that a lot, but I have seen it.

It's OK to use it wherever it hits the button. Style is a matter of opinion, not fatwa.

No one can be gnomic who never shuts his trap.

"Opt for" is a cliche that mercifully seems to have died a natural death. Years ago it was everywhere. Nobody ever chose anything. They opted for it.

Confession: I thought ghomic meant like a gnome.

Patrick: And so it does, where gnome means one who is wise, from the Greek. The question is why Paracelsus chose this word for the earth elementals he described.

A minor correction: I suspect you meant to refer to "a word that may not be familiar to you."
It would be more helpful to give words that have a decent chance of being used in speech or writing.

John, I remember commenting that limn was one of those posh words that gets used more in the UK than the UK. Ditto glabrous.

Just noticed another one: you can't use roils in a UK headline - stuns or rocks, tho, are okay.

And how I wish that us UK headline-writers could use a comma instead of 'and' - as in 'US roiled by literals, eggcorns'.


The Baltimore Sun has shown brighter since the return of the gnomic John E, McIntyre.

Oxford defines "gnomic" as "sententious" and "sententious" as "aphoristic". (But there are three definitions given for "sententious", and it's not clear whether or not "gnomic" applies to all, including "pompously moralising").

Onelook prefers to define it as "relating to or containing gnomes".

Other dictionaries reinforce that the core meaning is aphoristic, or containing a high density of aphorisms, expressing universal truths.

Looking around, cites a definition "Mysterious and often incomprehensible yet seemingly wise". Which suggests that gnomic text doesn't have to actually express universal truths, but may simply give the impression of doing so. In other words, if you read something and think "that sounds deep, but I have no idea what it means", then what you read was gnomic.

I like the "seems deep" definition, because I can associate that metaphorically with gnomes, obscured by soil just as trivial truths might be made to seem profound by being buried in aphorism-dense style.

I therefore conclude with the following warning. Beware of texts written by gnomes, for they are gnomic.

P.S. I bought a dictionary recently. Would tell you about it (I have my share of misgivings), but this comment is already long enough.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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