Lexicographer Erin McKean is a senior editor at OUP as well as editor of Verbatim, “the only magazine of language and linguistics for the layperson.” Yesterday on Public Radio International’s show “The Next Big Thing” she said she wanted to bring three obscure words into use (and tried to bribe John Linnell of the group “They Might Be Giants” into using all three in liner notes so she could cite them); the words were contrecoup, craniosophic, and limerent. The first means ‘The effect of a blow, as an injury, fracture, produced exactly opposite, or at some distance from, the part actually struck’ (OED), and there is a gap of over a century in citations, between 1882 (Syd. Soc. Lex., “Contre-coup.. is often very severe in the skull, for instance, the bone may be fractured on the opposite side to the seat of injury”) and a rash of uses in 2003; the second, meaning ‘learned in skulls,’ has been used only once, in 1819 (in a phrenological context); and the third is the adjective from the noun limerence—the noun, meaning ‘The state of being romantically infatuated or obsessed with another person,’ is common enough, but Erin wants more citations for the adjective (the latest edition of the OED has three, the latest being from 1998: V. C. DE MUNCK Romantic Love & Sexual Behavior iii. 80 If limerent, she would not have been able to stop thinking about Rhett”). What’s particularly interesting about limerence is its etymology, or lack thereof, as explained in this quote from Dorothy Tennov, the word’s inventor:
1977 Observer 11 Sept. 3/9, I first used the term ‘amorance’ then changed it back to ‘limerence’… It has no roots whatsoever. It looks nice. It works well in French. Take it from me it has no etymology whatsoever.
The feisty Scottish poet Liz Lochhead promptly used it in The Grimm Sisters (1981): “From limerance and venery/ She flinched as at fire,” which would seem to give the word a certain literary cachet. So let’s get limerent!
(Thanks to Songdog for alerting me to the show.)
When someone starts complaining to me about grammar, I listen intently. Not so much because I am entranced by yet another rant about the declining grammaticality of speaking and writing today, but because I am sure to hear an error in the speech of the ranter. It’s almost inevitable. English is a slippery divil; the rules are lagging far behind the caravan, and the inmates are not only running the asylum, they’re instituting managed care and turning a stupendous profit. English is messy, uninhibited, sprawling, and sloppy. That’s what I like about it. It’s a miracle when a good stylist can take the unmangeable tangle that is our language and craft a sparkling, coherent, evocative sentence out of it. In Verbatim, we believe that good writers are good writers not because of the rules of English, but in spite of them.
And Liz Lochhead, in a recent poem “Kidspoem/Bairnsang,” wrote this about using Scots:
Oh saying it was one thing
but when it came to writing it
in black and white
the way it had to be said
was as if you were posh, grown-up, male, English and dead.