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.