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Life and limn

When I clocked in at the paragraph factory on Tuesday afternoon, I discovered that there had been a kerfuffle about a headline on the front page: “Opposing /votes limn / differences / in race.”

The article was about the way that candidates for in Baltimore County had taken different sides of a set of issues. But it was that innocuous verb limn that startled and discomfited some readers who had evidently led sheltered lives.

You are most likely to have seen it in arts coverage in its basic sense of representing in drawing or painting. It also shows up occasionally in a broader sense of describing.*

One reader who had not previously come across it fired off an outraged letter to the editor:

“I consider myself an educated person. I graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Maryland, College Park some years ago with a degree in international relations/economics. I have never heard of the word "limn" and I have been a voracious reader all of my life. To put a word like "limn" in the headline for the lead article on the front page of this newspaper seems to me to be unbelievably arrogant and patronizing.”

Speaking as a headline writer myself, one who has often grappled with the constraints of the single-column headline, I heartily endorse all short verbs that are neither scatological nor obscene.** Speaking as a language maven, I applaud when people consult dictionaries to add another solid brick to the wall of their vocabularies. Now that you know what it means, it is your forever.

A fellow editor caught flak from readers for using limn in a headline at The Cincinnati Enquirer about 30 years ago. Speaking as an educator, I regret that the level of public education does not appear to have risen much in the intervening decades.


*The word, though moderately obscure, does turn up from time to time. Some examples:

Bloomberg,com: Obama Bio by Remnick Limns Networking, National Amnesia

Washington Post: Poll limns provisions of a more limited health-care reform bill ‘Times’ Workplace Columnist Limns Difference Between Old and Young

Sports Illustrated: A painter limns NBA players in an ancient style Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" Perfectly Limns The Zeitgeist of America


**Your suggestions for other options that might conceivably fit are, as always, welcome.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:33 PM | | Comments (38)


I have to admit I had to look this word up a few years ago when I ran across it, but I think it is a great word, and I a happy to see it have its moment on the front page!! Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

Wait — it's "patronizing" to use words other people don't know? Methinks Ms. PBK needs to consult the dictionary once more. To be patronizing, wouldn't the headline writer have had to have limited the choices to words well known to children of all ages?

You may have hit on something, Mr. Tyllick. The published letter says that the complainant used a thesaurus (!) to ferret out the meaning of this obscure word. A dictionary would have answered the purpose admirably, and I am at a loss to understand how that was not the first resort of such a laureate.

What's patronizing is the Sun's response. The original complaint by Ms. Shaw is absolutely correct in that it very unusual/bizarre for a major newspaper to use such an esoteric word in the headline for its lead story on the front page.

But then of course The Sun is no longer a major newspaper; apparently it's been reduced to using artsy-fartsy terms instead of reporting news.

Resisting the urge to break one of my cardinal rules - respond only to the blog, never to the comments - I will simply say that I greatly appreciated the Sun giving me the opportunity to get out my American Heritage 4th edition. It was a useful and pleasant start to my work week.

The purpose of a headline is to make the reader read the article. If it makes the reader reach for a dictionary instead it has failed in its purpose.

"Limn" is not a word that most readers know and, if even they do know it, they have to think for a second or two to remember what it means, at least I did. It is a lovely word, but it probably does not belong in a news article about a political campaign. I would have replaced it with "show," which lacks the nuance of "limn" but works better in a headline of this sort.

That said, one should remember that there are a number of short words that are found primarily in headlines and almost never in common speech: "mull" and "probe" (in the sense of "explore"). The public accepts these not because they are common words but because they are used to seeing them in headlines. I doubt that "limn" will have this happy fate, since "show" is already doing the job. I expect, by the way, that some words have made it into common parlance thanks primarily to their use in headlines as substitutes for longer words. Is this not what happened with the word "jobless" as a substitute for "the unemployed"?

As for arrogance, well, it is hard for copyeditors not to be arrogant, since we know so much more than most people (knowing more than most people is part of our job description, after all).

I like _limn_ though I admit I learned it as an adult. I think it's a rising usage.

But here's something for your comment: an overwritten paragraph in the LATimes:

"Deep in the ravine, the air is hot and dead. Pieces of bark that have sloughed off trees make every step a danger — nature's equivalent of a thousand forgotten skateboards cluttering a driveway. Slate tinkles underfoot, and the ground feels like stale angel-food cake: stiff yet porous."


I think the reader could figure out the meaning of "limn" from context. It's likely that almost any verb placed between "opposing votes" and "differences" would mean something like "show."

limn = 3.5 count.

show = 4.5 count.

Advantage: limn.

And what kind of sicko doesn't like learning cool new words?

I knew the word limn prior to reading this blog post, and was surprised to learn that when I use it I'm arrogantly patronizing my listeners.

I'm befuddled by that concept, actually. As a parent of young children, I'm exhorted by parenting experts to set high expectations for my children on the assumption that if I do so, they'll rise to meet them. Apparently this is not true of adults, for whom expectations must be dumbed down so as not to hurt their feelings?

I don't share the outraged reader's outrage, but I do think 'limn' is one of those fancy-pants words headline writers sometimes resort when they don't quite know what they're trying to say but want to sound a little impressive.

In this case, what does the headline actually mean? That the differing votes of political candidates on some issue(s) point to their, um, political differences? Well, ain't that the news!

Were I in Marketing/PR at UMD College Park, I would cringe when reading Ms. PBK's letter.

Point to MelissaJane for using befuddled. That word always makes me smile because I get a visual of Yosemite Sam.

(I wish I had Dahlink's decoder ring for this Captcha...I might never figure it out!)

I looked up limn, even after reading the blog post, merely to ensure that I had the correct definition in mind. I, however, do that regularly, as my husband has an extensive vocabulary and I want to make sure my expanding vocabulary is used correctly.

My favorite thing out of all of this? RyanDumas's comment on the letter to the editor "Curse you Sun for making me learn." That is too good.

Any headline, like the many ledes you so voraciously criticize, that does not convey the essential meaning of story in a straighforward, easily understood way is a mistake. The use of the word limn in that headline made it just such a mistake. You would do well to admit it and then move on. But as a former colleague, who admired most of what you did, I know that is not your style (should we re-debate "small" vs "wee" hours, or "velcro" vs "hook and loop fasteners, or "looks could kill" Miss America lede?). Instead, in this sentence "I regret that the level of public education does not appear to have risen much in the intervening decades." Actually, I was lucky enough to have a private education, both high school, and college -- Johns Hopkins. I was also lucky enought to have spent my life working with words. Yet when I saw that headline, I went to the dictionary fearing a major typo on the front page of the paper. And what do I get from you? Not an apology for a bad headline, but an insult to my education. Tupperware poisoning indeed.
Michael Hill

Michiko Kakutani, leading literary critic for the New York Times, is famous for her (over-) use of "limn."

I'll repeat here Frank Roylance's challenge posted as a comment on the original letter of complaint:

But I respect the challenge of effective headline writing on deadline. I invite any reader to write a better headline for that story, using four lines, each no more than 10 characters wide. When you have it, post it here, and tell us how long it took.

Opposing/votes give/rare clues/to race

That work? Took a few minutes, but I obviously was given a head start.

Votes Show

While being a fine word in its proper place, limn has no place in a front page headline.

About three minutes after actually reading the article:

Council votes
Show narrow
In race

People (who still read newspapers) don't know the meaning of "limn"? I hereby challenge everyone to a game of Scrabble!

I think I have a fairly good vocabulary, but I was bested by one of my sons when he put down "foveole" (and on a triple letter spot, too). I challenged him, and lost.

I've been a journalist for 17 years, a copy editor for about eight of those. I graduated at the top of my class in a well-supported public school system and then from an elite private college. I've lived in and read newspapers in three countries, all English-speaking, and I've traveled a lot. I might have run across "limn" in print before, but if I did I don't recall it. I just had to look it up.

Whether to use a word like "limn" in a headline is, to me, a no-brainer. I don't write headlines to show off my word skills; I write them to convey the news clearly to all readers.

Michiko Kakutani's overuse of "limn" has not only been widely noted, but widely mocked and dissected. See:

"One Life To Limn" parody:


Most recently, she's been ridiculed for her reference to author Jonathan Franzen's "lapidary prose."

Michiko Kakutani's overuse of "limn" has not only been widely noted, but widely mocked and dissected. See:

"One Life To Limn" parody:


Most recently, she's been ridiculed for her reference to author Jonathan Franzen's "lapidary prose."

I absolutely agree with Michael Hill. John, your response is insulting and appears more as PR for the Sun than an independent analysis. I am a fellow copy editor and attended a private university, but I did not know the meaning of "limn." I used to admire your knowledge and dedication to the art of copy editing. Through one post, I lost all respect for you.

There may not have been anything particularly wrong with using limn in a headline, but there definitely wasn't a lot to recommend it. And "I'd like to see you do better" is a fairly childish response to criticism, however it's phrased. (But since you asked: Racial/differences/reflected/in vote.)

That said, anyone who complains about being made to look something up -- that is, to learn something -- cannot but appear foolish in boasting about his or her education.

As for mocking a Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for using literary language, well that's just plain silly -- unless, of course, your point is that Franzen's prose is not lapidary. And good luck arguing that.

Mr. Hill's and Ms. Ngai's touchiness seems to have risen in part from my lack of clarity. My intended point was not to disparage people over their vocabularies. Rather, it was to suggest that possession of an honors degree and a Phi Beta Kappa key without an openness or intellectual curiosity does not speak well of an educational system that generates such results. And I think that the contention that the American university system produces more credential-holders than intellectually curious people can stand up to examination.

Wow, I sure am glad I looked up "lapidary". For some reason, I thought it had something to do with rabbits and thus was becoming quite eager to read Franzen. Would his sentences be bounding all over the page? Would perusing his prose be akin to nibbling clover all day? What sort of language Trix might this guy be pulling?

Oh well, you learn something new every day. Such as an innovative use of the term "racial" in describing the activity of a political contest.

A colleague had trouble trying to post this note:

NPR briefly notes (28 seconds) the limn debate and refers to The Sun's "grammar guru" on Morning Edition today. You can listen here:

Apparently NPR, even with its supposedly erudite and well informed listeners, found it prudent to define the word limn for us. I take this as another indication that its inclusion in a headline is unwise.

And for those who ask why anyone would denounce a word choice that causes people to turn to their dictionaries and increase their vocabulary, I answer that this is beside the point. Headlines are supposed to be quick indicators of the substance of the article, not opaque obfuscating barriers to the news within.


P.S. See, I like less common words too. Everything has its place.

The D-K Diner in West Chester, Pa. keeps newspapers, not dictionaries, on top of the refrigerator case behind the counter.

Therefore, I rule the word "limn" inappropriate for any newspaper circulating in any diner in the United States of America.

I was never a big fan of William F. Buckley, but I did admire his bold use of big or obscure words (although he was prone to overdoing it and might fairly be accused of "showing off" from time to time).

Limn...shmimn. I'm not a little stunned that the Pulitzer is awarded to a book critic....a critic!

I don't think I've ever used 'limn' myself, but it's certainly there in my passive vocabulary.

Quite apart from the question of whether such a word is appropriate for a headline, I do wonder if it's the right word anyway. To me it means 'portray', while 'reveal' seems to be the meaning aimed at. I must admit, however, that as one of your further flung readers, I haven't read the article as the topic has no interest for me.

Yea gads John.....Little did you know you'd be "going out on a limn" by that word. (pun, Pun) Carole...lighten up......

I wish "lapidary" had something to do with rabbits.

Kerry, I believe that would be "lapinary" ...


Never having taken a journalism class from an ivory tower institution, I can't say authoritarianly – er, authoritatively – whether limn belongs in a front-page deadline – er, headline.

However, in my lowly public high school education, I learned to never let others be pedantic in my presence without calling for clarification, or at least looking up the word when opportunity allows.

Further, somewhere between commencing kindergarten and college commencement, I learned what is rarely taught, videlicet how to learn, and that is why limn will suffer the fate of vet. Speaking of which, perhaps front page headlines utilizing wee little words need vetting by a council of copy editors?


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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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