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Limning the white boy in me; Q of the Day

Apparently to Baltimore Sun reader Carol N. Shaw, I am probably “unbelievably arrogant and patronizing.”

Why would she say such a thing?

Because there is at least one instance in the Blend where I used the word “limn.”

The “I need more gangsta sh!t” side and the “What’s wrong with the children nowadays” side of it.

Yes, this does beg for an essay that could limn a number of intersectional issues on this topic.


by: kevinchi @ Mon Nov 02, 2009 at 14:32:21 PM EST

Actually, that was the one use of the word that I could locate using the Blend’s search feature; it’s actually a part of my everyday vocabulary and I know that I have used it at other blogs.

Carol Shaw is not alone in her opinion.

A controversy like this reminds me of so many instances in my childhood and even occasionally in my adulthood where I have been accused of acting or talking “white.”

Now I find out that maybe I talk a little too “white” for even some white folks, LOL.


Ben Zimmer, writing on the Visual Thesaurus website, pointed out that limn, in particular, has come in for more than its fair share of abuse over the years: Michael Dirda, The Washington Post book critic, has called it an example of an “ugly, pushy” word; writer Ben Yagoda called it a word that has “never been said aloud in the history of English“; and David Foster Wallace admitted that limn could seem “just off-the-charts pretentious.” William Safire, back in 2002, called limn a “vogue word” and gave it a life span of “six more months.” (Here at the Globe, Page One editor Charles Mansbach says he’d avoid limning anything in a headline: “It probably would baffle too many readers.”)

So it’s bad enough that I talk and act too “white” for some black folks; now some pretty illustrious dead (and living) white men think that I’m “off-the-charts pretentious”…or something like that.

(Even though I’m 100% positive that I learned the word from a book by Toni Morrison (it was either in Playing in the Dark or her Nobel Prize speech.)

The Boston Globe did raise a couple of fascinating points about the psychological reactions of people who encounter words that they don’t know.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether limn is a reasonable word to expect readers to understand, the interesting part of this controversy is how clearly it divides people into two groups: those who feel intrigued and excited when they encounter a new word, and those who feel irritated or defensive.

Here’s a good question for the day: How do you react when you encounter a word or phrase or concept that you don’t know?

My reaction actually varies, of course. If it’s something that I don’t know and would have no way of knowing, then I may or may not get “intrigued and excited” and learn more about it.

If it’s something that I feel or assume that I do know but I actually don’t, then I do get irritated or defensive.

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