Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What's a limn?


One of my first published articles in U.S. News & World Report, where I was a financial reporter, was a book review. 

I don't recall the book. In fact, the only thing I do recall is the word "limn" that the editor inserted into my pristine prose. (As a young writer, I believed my prose was pristine. I'm sure if I dug that clip out and a copy of what I submitted to the editor, I'd see how much he improved it.) 

When I read the edited copy, I asked, "What's a 'limn'?" I knew it was a verb, since the passage read, "the book limns the experiences of a financial analyst caught in the vice grip of corruption" or some such purple prose of majesty. At that point in my career, I considered myself a wordsmith and was surprised I hadn't run into that before. 

To limn, I soon learned, is "to draw or paint on a surface; to outline in clear sharp detail: delineate; describe," according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. The word comes from Latin illuminare, to illuminate. 

Even then, I thought it was a pretentious, ten-dollar word when "tell," a perfectly clear Anglo-Saxon word, worked just as well. I queried the editor and was rebuffed. When I complained to colleagues, they said "limn" was one of the editor's favorite words and that he often inserted it into book reviews. It seemed he was on a mission to spread "limn" far and wide. I wasn't convinced. 

As I limn this experience, I can tell you that more than a decade later, this is the first time I've used that word in my writing. It's likely the last time, too. 

(Image of rug, above, from Limn.com, an interior design studio and art gallery in San Francisco)

1 comment:

  1. That's a good one! Never heard it before either...and probably never will again.

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