Word To Avoid,

unless you want to sound pretentious: "limn."

(Post title to avoid, unless you want to sound obnoxious: "Word To Avoid"? Maybe.)

Christopher M. (mail):
You think? I've practically made a term-paper/law-school-essay industry out of "limn the contours." Eff that now, I guess. Thanks a lot, Volokh.
2.28.2006 1:18am
cirby (mail):
I'm working very hard at being postentious.
2.28.2006 1:19am
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
``Limn'' is one of the thousand words in I Moyer Hunsberger's _The Quintessential Dictionary_ (Hart, 1978), words which, copied onto flash cards and learned, enable one to read all of WF Buckley without looking anything up.

It is not, however, in this case, one of Buckley's words. It shows up rather in the NYT and Smithsonian Magazine, to judge from the citations. This is not a good sign.

Best citation in the book, under PUERILE:

``I'd like to see ... [an] experiment in which callers describe the [TV] show just seen in three adjectives. Within reason, of course. ("We have here a Mr. Buckley who finds _Laverne and Shirley_ EGREGIOUS, PUERILE and JEJUNE.")

(D.Cavett, of NEA, "Television 'Wasteland' Revisited," Norman [Okla.] Transcript, 6/23/76, p.6)''
2.28.2006 2:58am
Robert Cote (mail) (www):
2.28.2006 5:37am
luck counts:
Hit and Run

Occasion of post? Just guessing.
2.28.2006 8:26am
Guest2 (mail):
It's right up there with "cabin" (as a verb). "Mandate" as a verb is a close second.
2.28.2006 9:03am
Dave Friedman (mail) (www):
Suppose one wants to limn the pretensions of law professors?
2.28.2006 9:18am
The word appears 570 in Westlaw's allfeds database. 161 of those (no joke) are in opinions by Bruce Selya of the 1st Circuit.
2.28.2006 9:45am
Jeffrey Tucker:
I'd love a moratorium on the employment of the phrase "beg the question." It sounds (slightly) learned, but almost no one uses it correctly.
2.28.2006 9:46am
Laura Appleman (mail):
Reify. Hermeneutics (although I sense that one fell out of favor about 5 years ago). Ergo.
2.28.2006 10:12am
eddie (mail):
I would suggest the word "originalist". It assumes an ability which is incapable of being adopted.

Or perhaps "proactive".
Or even worse "empowering".
2.28.2006 10:32am
What does "cabin" used as a verb mean?
2.28.2006 10:40am
Steve Lubet (mail):
the problem with most of these words is that they are overused (when they are not being misused). there is nothing wrong, however, with a little erudition. many people (myself included) enjoy learning new words, and we also enjoy using them in the right situation. you would not use "lucubrate" in an oped (or in front of a jury), for example, but it is a wonderful word and will remain so unless it becomes trivialized or jargonized.
2.28.2006 10:51am
John Lederer (mail):

One is cabined for a Wisconsin winter.
2.28.2006 11:09am
Used incorrectly too often to be sure the user knows what he means:

Nonplussed (Means the opposite of what my students think it means.)
Penultimate (Doesn't mean "Totally ultimate, man!".)
Bemused (Not a synonym for "amused.")
2.28.2006 11:17am
Cabin as a verb means to box up into a small space. I'm sure it is related to cabins on a ship for instance.
2.28.2006 11:20am
djd (mail):
Selya is notorious. Here is a Selya sampler: tergiversation, timeous, sockdolager, aposematic, perscrutation,asseverative,abecedarian.
2.28.2006 11:20am
sonicfrog (mail) (www):
My all time favorite is when newscasters use the term "factoid" which of coarse means the "fact" is a poor imitation, incorrect, or counterfeit. It only resembles a fact.
2.28.2006 11:21am

It must go!
2.28.2006 11:25am
JLR (mail):
Neologism Alert:

Someone who overuses the word "limn" is known as a "limnphomaniac."

Example Sentence:

Michiko Kakutani, chief book critic for The New York Times, is a limnphomaniac.

All of us who love to read Michiko realize she is a textbook limnphomaniac. And I'd argue that "limn" isn't solely used because the writer wishes to sound pretentious. Michiko's got strict space limits. In writing about novels, she needs to write about how John Updike or Don DeLillo or E.L. Doctorow describe a character or scene. "Describe" is eight letters. "Limn" is only four. As a result, "limn" is ripe for overuse. Michiko so overuses the word "limn" that it was documented in Harper's Magazine.

Lorentzen, Christian. "Limnphomaniac." Harper's Magazine, Dec 2003, page 24. (The citation, abstract, and PDF page view are available through Proquest. The top of the PDF page has art that was omitted from Proquest, but the article itself is there further down the page. Luckily for me I subscribe to Harper's, so I do not have to rely on Proquest to read one of the most liberal magazines in the United States. You got to see what those darned New York lefties are up to, after all.)

Therefore, I'd argue that "limn" in and of itself is not a bad word. But "limn" should not be overused. Otherwise, one becomes a limnphomaniac. And there are better things to be than that.

Thanks again for the great post on a very interesting and easily overused word.
2.28.2006 12:25pm
Attila (Pillage Idiot) (mail) (www):
When I saw this post, Selya is exactly the offender I thought of. A quick Westlaw search indicates he's written some 300+ opinions using the word "limn" or one of its forms.
2.28.2006 12:27pm
Siona Sthrunch (mail):
Limn is a short, elegant, useful word - why would you criticize it?

The two most common reasons to use the word are:

1. as a synonym for "describe" but with strong connotations of "describe concretely" because of limn's roots in painting.

For example, "the requirement of considering various salient causal factors is part and parcel of a party's duty to limn a plausible causal relationship between particular independent and dependent variables." Wessman v. Gittens, 160 F.3d 790, 805 (1st Cir. 1998) (Selya, J.).

Here, using "describe" connotes a much vaguer description of a causal relationship, and using "paint" or "sketch" would have different and unwanted connotations. How would you rewrite the phrase to retain its connotations and keep it reasonably concise?

2. To mean explicitly tracing the outline of. For example, "such policies do not create inherent sovereign power or limn its contours", Strate v. A1 Contractors, Brief of Amici Curiae, 1996 WL 709326.

One interesting thing about the word is that OED does not even list the primary American meaning, "to trace the shape of," and other dictionaries also incorrectly call it just "paint."
2.28.2006 12:57pm
Does this mean that Home Depot needs to relabel its limn aisle?
2.28.2006 1:14pm
JLR (mail):
As I pointed out above, "limn" is half the length of "describe," rendering it much better for strict page and length limits. Furthermore (as Siona point out), "limn" certainly has an elegance about it that "describe" lacks. If one is writing a legal brief, where directness is desired, "limn" would seem pretentious. But in a literary critic, it marks one's own distinctive style.

In my opinion, the concern comes not with the actual word, but with its overuse. Hence, "limnphomaniac" (see my above comment [link here].

It sounds as if commenters familiar with the writing of the Honorable Bruce M. Selya believe he overuses the word. I am not familiar with his writing, but I am familiar with Michiko Kakutani's. And she certainly overuses the word.

However, it's Michiko's own personal style. It makes her distinctive. It helps make her a must-read critic. If Michiko wrote more generically, her writing wouldn't be any different from Janet Maslin's, or from William Grimes's (two other main daily book critics for the Times).

I don't see why Judge Selya can't likewise have his own distinctive style when writing judicial opinions.

Therefore, "limn," like any word, can be overused. But, despite Professor Volokh's self-effacing parenthetical, "limn" itself deserves better than the appellation "word to avoid." "Limn" is a word with a glorious history, including usage by William Shakespeare in Venus and Adonis ("Look, when a painter would surpass the life, / In limning out a well-proportioned steed"). "Limn" deserves to live.

Let us not tear "limn" from "limn." Instead, use limn sparingly, as one would use a spice in a stew. Eating a stew that is too spicy does not mean that there is no use for any spice at all. Don't throw out "limn" just because it is often overused.

Thank you.
2.28.2006 1:46pm
JLR (mail):
Obviously, in a post about language, it is key to revise and edit one's comments scrupulously. In the parenthetical in the first paragraph of my 2.28.2006 1:46 pm comment, it should say "(as Siona pointed out)."

Just to reiterate the theme of my second comment: Let us not tear limn from limn. Limn deserves to live.

Thank you.
2.28.2006 1:50pm
Mikeyes (mail):
My pet peeves are:

Hopefully used to mean "I hope."

Nauseated, not Nauseous (unless you cause nausea by your appearance.)

Misuse of Affect and Effect.

Using Impact as a verb to mean to effect or change.

Impact and Hopefully should be avoided.
2.28.2006 2:06pm
Greedy Clerk (mail):
Never heard of it -- and now I have to avoid it; man that sucks. I am always amazed at the number of words in the English language . . . .
2.28.2006 2:20pm
It literally kills me when people misuse "literally".
2.28.2006 2:28pm
JLR (mail):
Mr. Greedy Clerk (calling you that makes me think of the New York Times calling Meat Loaf "Mr. Loaf"):

Why do you have to avoid it?

Michiko doesn't.
Judge Selya doesn't.

Please, don't tear limn from limn. If it's good enough for Shakespeare, it's good enough for me. The key is not to overuse the word. Synonyms are like spices: too many, and you spoil the stew. "Limn" used sparingly enhances. (And for literary critics, "limn" used frequently becomes a stylistic feature.)

Of course, all bets are off if one is facing a pet peeve. And one can never satisfy every reader's pet peeve (like starting sentences with "And").

So don't worry. And don't overuse. :-)
2.28.2006 2:29pm
Bleepless (mail):
As Calvin and Hobbes once put it, "Verbing weirds language." Quite so.

"Dialogue" as a verb is appalling; use of "dialog" in any form should be a capital offense.

A new atrocity has arisen, first spotted at the Olympics: "medal" as a verb. No, I am not kidding.
2.28.2006 2:37pm
To add to Mikeyes list: I sincerely wish that people would stop using "issues" (as in "he has issues about that") to mean "problems."
2.28.2006 2:39pm
Visitor Again:
What is overuse of a word? I would think the literary quality of a piece of writing should be judged by what it contains, not on the basis of other writings by the same author and certainly not on the basis of writings by other authors. If a single piece contains "limn" two, three or four times, perhaps the word has been overused. If a single piece contains it only once, it has not been overused even if the author uses the same word in other pieces.

All of us have favorite words. Must we keep a running record of how many times we use a certain word in our collective body of writings? Isn't it enough to take proper care in the piece at hand?

There are, of course, words that should never be used. "Impact" as a verb is my pet peeve, although that's a lost battle. Also see "disinterested" versus "uninterested," a confusion which blighted a newscast just last night. It's no wonder young people have lost the ability to speak proper English; their teachers lost it before they did.
2.28.2006 3:12pm
frankcross (mail):
For me, the statement "that's pretentious" is tantamount to saying "my vocabulary is limited."
2.28.2006 3:16pm
>>>A new atrocity has arisen, first spotted at the Olympics: "medal" as a verb. No, I am not kidding.

During the snowboarding in the Olympics. I heard 'podium' used as a verb.
2.28.2006 3:33pm
Doug Sundseth (mail):
Elimnate it.

(It had to be said.)
2.28.2006 4:02pm
Guest2 (mail):
All of us have favorite words. Must we keep a running record of how many times we use a certain word in our collective body of writings?

The issue is not how often you use a word but how often it is used generally (and thus how often your audience has heard it already). (1) In everything except certain types of creative writing, you want your audience to focus on your meaning, not on your words. (2) Many words become fashionable for a time, with the result that people become sick of hearing them or react to them only as code. (3) When a word becomes fashionable, sensitive writers will avoid it, because the average reader's reaction to the word will have little to do with its meaning and much to do with when and where he heard it elsewhere (thereby implicating point (1)).
2.28.2006 4:05pm
sonicfrog (mail) (www):
Another term that is way, way overused lately is the term "ad-hominem attack". It has devolved into nothing more than an accusitory (is that a word?) mechanism for radio personalities of all stripe to use to eat up time when interviewing a guest of the opposite political persuasion. This goes on for the entire interview. When the interview is over you realize neither host or guest had expressed any substantive thought on the topic being discussed.

Hannity, I'm lookin' in your direction!
2.28.2006 4:49pm
JLR (mail):
I can't help but say this in response to Doug Sundseth: don't "elimnate" it, and don't tear limn from limn. Limn is not inherently bad. But, depending on one's personal preferences, a reader may prefer to not read works by "limnphomaniacs" (see my above comments).

I agree with "Visitor Again" -- pet peeves are pet peeves, and each reader is entitled to his fair share. But simply saying "This perfectly acceptable English word that Shakespeare used should never be used in writing if you want to make a good impression" bespeaks a utilitarian approach to writing that may work for legal briefs. However, it does not for book reviews, much less works of literature. Sorry for being so blunt, but had to be said too. :-)

This has been an enjoyable thread, mainly because Michiko Kakutani is my favorite Limnphomaniac, and I got to spread the Harper's Magazine article to the VC-sphere. The original post and subsequent comments have been most fun to read.
2.28.2006 5:43pm
JLR (mail):
The 5:43 pm comment was written in a hustle so let me rephrase a couple of sentences:

Simply saying "This perfectly acceptable English word that Shakespeare used should never be used in writing if you want to make a good impression" seems to imply a utilitarian approach to writing that may work (and probably has worked) for legal briefs. However, it does not work for book reviews, much less for fiction or literary essays.

Sorry for repeating that again -- let me reiterate how enjoyable these etymological and lexicographic posts have been.
2.28.2006 5:47pm
Harriet Miers' Law Partner:
I often use "the statute cabins the judge's authority" in appeals of a district court's review of administrative agency action because one has to remind the judges that the statute provides the sole basis for the review -- it reminds the appellate court and doesn't offend the district court.
2.28.2006 8:37pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
``Ad hominem''

Originally this was an argument appealing to the opponent, not attacking him.

Thus :
I came back at this professor with an argumentum ad hominem, "Is it true,"said I, "that the more knowledge your wife has of you, the less faith she has in you? And is it true that the more you know of her, the less faith you have in her? In your home are faith and knowledge in inverse ratio? If so, I pity you both." It is not true that knowledge excludes faith. The more you know of your family physician, the more faith you have in him. The more soldiers know of their general, the greater their faith in him; else the army is in a bad way. The more we know of our friends the more faith we have in them. The greater a man's knowledge of nature, the greater his faith in nature. Intelligent faith is not weaker than ignorant faith.''
2.28.2006 11:26pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):

To say that something literally kills somebody is to use ``literally'' figuratively, which is not prohibited, though perhaps confusing to this or that analyst.

It's a claim that the term is justified just as it would be if it were literal.

As many dictionaries put it, ``literally'' is an intensifier, dictionaries not being allowed to say ``fig.'' or ``transf.'' in their genre.
2.28.2006 11:31pm
Visitor Again:
The issue is not how often you use a word but how often it is used generally (and thus how often your audience has heard it already).

But what I was responding to was the complaint that a single book reviewer overused "limn," apparently because she used it in several pieces. No one accused her of using it several times in a single piece or even of using it improperly or as techno=jargon. .

In any event (much overused by me in legal briefs along with "At any rate" when introducing an independent argument), has "limn" become overused in the sense of which you speak? I don't hear it or read it often, and I do a lot of reading. Of course I never use it and perhaps it just doesn't stick out to me. It's just not one of my words—and I doubt it ever will be.

I agree that this sort of thread is fascinating. We can all learm new things about English usage, and miost of us do a lot of writing. I hope those who run the site
continue to let fly with pet peeves or anything else they have to say about our purportedly common language. It's especially good fodder for slow days.
2.28.2006 11:47pm
Any discourse on the calculus of professorial limning?
3.1.2006 12:34am
Guest2 (mail):
has "limn" become overused in the sense of which you speak?

Probably not. I went off on a tangent. IMO, the problem with "limn" for lawyers is that it sounds like the writer is trying to imitate the windy type of Supreme Court opinion. Which I guess brings us back to Prof. Volokh's original point, that it sounds pretentious.
3.1.2006 7:32am