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
Gawker.com: ‘Times’ Workplace Columnist Limns Difference Between Old and Young
Sports Illustrated: A painter limns NBA players in an ancient style
Examiner.com: Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" Perfectly Limns The Zeitgeist of America
**Your suggestions for other options that might conceivably fit are, as always, welcome.