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Wind and limn

You’d have thought that some rogue copy editor had gone all Anglo-Saxon on the front page of The Baltimore Sun. But it wasn’t f—, s—, or c— that appeared in the headline (and if you know what dirty words are represented by those initials, shame on you); it was limn.

An irate reader, Carol Shaw, took the appearance of a word she did not know as a personal affront and dispatched a letter to the editor. Many other readers expressed puzzlement, but many also took issue, often in personal terms, with Ms. Shaw, and the matter snowballed.

The Sun published a short article on the brouhaha, which got thousands of views on the website, and I commented on it here. Many other websites and publications picked up the story, and it even got twenty-some seconds of mention on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

I should make clear that in the outpouring of comments at baltimoresun.com and You Don’t Say, most were highly positive, praising the paper for refusing to “dumb down” the contents. (Actually, Steve Young, the editor who wrote the headline, just needed a shorter word for show in a one-column space.)

Criticism of headlines is always part of the quality control operation down at the paragraph factory on Calvert Street. Is it accurate? Does it fit? Can it be recast to make it sharper? And, always, are the words appropriate for our readership—apt or too obscure, clear or opaque? Baffling the readers does us no good, and commentary on our effectiveness, both in-house and from outside, is always appropriate.

But Ben Zimmer, the estimable linguist who presides over the Visual Thesaurus and writes on language for The New York Times, identifies the emotional component in this odd little rumpus. Limn appears to provoke a strong reaction in some readers, who take less delight in encountering a word with which they were not previously acquainted than offense at what they perceive to be snootiness and pretension.

It cuts both ways. The unfortunate Ms. Shaw, my fellow honors graduate and Phi Beta Kappa member, was thumped soundly for what readers identified as her pretension in parading her credentials in that letter to the editor.

People are quite ready to take up sides, which indicates how language is always more than the flat denotation of the words put to use. Headline writing, which is by its nature elliptical, is treacherous because political and social implications, along with indicators of class and education, are always lurking within the words.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. The skill of the craft—of not just the composition of headlines, but of any writing—lies in the recognition of these complexities and the application of judicious, apt, and telling choices.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:37 AM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

If it's in the dictionary, it's fair game for use in writing...of any kind.

I like learning new words, but it causes me physical pain when my husband uses high-falutin (worse yet, longer) words (that I am familiar with) for no good reason, to express very simple things, especially when he uses them in a way that is not quite correct. It's like fingernails on a blackboard. It puts me in a bad mood and I have to keep my mouth shut, but the peace is gone anyway. I wish I could take more medication than I do already.

Today I pried open my two volume copy of the OED (the one in microprint that requires a magnifying glass to read) published over the end of the 19th century into the third decade of the twentieth century. Of the five definitions given, none of which fit the Sun's usage, I like forth best which refers to something transient or futile.

My favorite method for testing a headline is to pretend I'm peddling the paper on a downtown corner. First I say, "Read all about it." Then I shout the hed. If it has a catchy rhythm, it can be shouted. If it doesn't, it can't.

My favorite hed appeared in The Des Moines Register in the '70s: "Iowa Loses Highest Point." You can shout that hed. The story said a survey showed that the old Indian mound that was supposed to be Iowa's highest point wasn't. People who'd visited all the states' highest points would have to return to Iowa, once surveyors had determined where the highest poiont was.

I learned all those dirty words in school. But I had to look up limn. :)

Without getting into "limn" itself, it's nonsense to say that "If it's in the dictionary, it's fair game for use in writing...of any kind."

@Rusty: My personal copy of the Oxford English Dictionary for my Android phone has its second definition of "limn" as (and poetically so) 'suffuse or highlight [something] with a bright colour or light : a crescent moon limned each shred with white gold.' Very nice indeed, as a replacement word for "show."

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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