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.)

Erin, by the way, is the author of this marvelous paragraph (from the anthology Verbatim, which I will obviously have to get a copy of), quoted at UJG last November:

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.


  1. Limerent? I don’t know that I could ever bring myself to invent a word ex nihilo like that. ‘Tain’t natural! Like a plastic leaf on the tree of language.
    Wouldn’t “nympholept” be a good word to see more of around the place, by the way?

  2. “It works well in French” ?? I never ever heard nor read such a word !

  3. I suppose the author it means that it could, conceivably, work well in French (phonetically?). Essentially (IMO) it’s as objective and absurd a comment as “it looks nice”.

  4. Cryptic Ned says:

    Limerent? What’s wrong with “Infatuated”?

  5. What I want to know is why Lochhead spells it “limerance” instead of “limerence.”

  6. I’m so late to this thread, but…
    A couple years ago I looked up phobophilia in several dictionaries to confirm that it meant what I thought it meant, only to find that I had apparently just coined it, because I couldn’t find any dictionary definitions, and only one GHit, in an academic paper translated from modern Greek.
    Unlike limerence, phobophilia has a dead obvious etymology, which is why I assumed it was already in use.
    Anyway, as should be obvious, a phobophiliac is a person who can only experience emotional gratification when afraid. In the absence of actual threats, a phobophiliac will imagine or even engender a threat sufficient to gratify their phobophilia.
    Since I see this phenomenon all the time, I can’t believe there’s not a common word for it. Unless there is, and I’m missing something obvious.

  7. I’ve been wondering whether, despite Tennov’s denial she could have been reaching back unconsciously to words such as liminal – on the threshold – limb (edge), as “the shadow of the moon touched the limb of the sun and so began an eclipse” or Limbo – a well-known indeterminate state that the Vatican no longer espouses as part of Catholic belief 🙂

    Philosopher Jacob Boehme uses the word limbus to refer to one element of the inchoate state before creation. It evokes a lack of definiteness. Significantly for me, Boehme also sometimes spells it “limus”, which is Latin for “askance” and also “mud”. I can imagine those who describe themselves as “limerent” relating to both – shy sidelong glances at the object of their limerence and a feeling of being “mired” in something not quite infatuation and not quite real love.

    @Cryptic Ned: According to Tennov, limerence is distinguished from infatuation by its relative maturity of feeling and by its length. Infatuation or a “crush” is usually fleeting, she says. A “limerent” feeling can last for years.

    Much more, locating it within the vocabulary of psychology, can be read at

    And if you can stand it, a reading of the “Limerence Experienced” discussion group on might give an idea of how those who see themselves as limerent define the term. You might come away with some sympathy, or a strong desire to bang some of their heads together 🙂

  8. @HP Perhaps one characteristic of limerence could be described as “philophobia” – fear of a “normal” love-relationship.

    My light-hearted coinage – retrognosis (counterpart of prognosis and diagnosis, but, I suggested, much easier to do). My daughter tells me the word exists and has a useful meaning. Doctor to patient: “I’ve arrived at a provisional diagnosis of your condition, but I need more information to be sure: tell me; did you have a nasty persistent cough at the age of about 12?” That’s retrognosis.

  9. For those of you who aren’t They Might Be Giants fans, they actually wrote a song using all three words: “Coutrecoup”, released on their 2007 album The Else. Lyrics here and music here.

    I had no idea about the story behind the song before today, so thanks to Steve B for digging up this old thread!

    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

    Surely this must be a violation of lexicographical ethics, if there is such a thing.

  10. No, no — citing a word without attestation would be a violation of lexicographical ethics, but encouraging such attestation is perfectly in order.

  11. The problem I have with limerent is that I don’t know how to distinguish it from other words like infatuation or passion or whatever. If it had an etymology, that might help. As it is, it does not seem to have a distinct meaning, so I have no reason to use it. The fact that the word has been around since the 1970s and virtually no one uses it or has ever heard of it seems to says something.

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