In the course of reading John Crowley’s novel The Translator (how could I resist a book with a title like that?), I came to a sudden halt on page 31 at the sentence “She wondered (though the wonder never quite rose over the limn of hurt consciousness) how she would ever be able to do anything daring or good ever again.” The limn of hurt consciousness? I had never seen the word used as a noun, but it’s not a common word anyway, and John Crowley is clearly a learned man (he wrote a novel called Dæmonomania, with an æ ligature, for heaven’s sake), so I was perfectly prepared to look it up and discover some rare and beautiful usage I could commit to memory. But the OED knows only the verb, originally ‘illuminate (letters, manuscripts, books)’ or ‘adorn or embellish with gold or bright colour,’ then ‘paint (a picture or portrait); portray, depict (a subject),’ which is its modern sense (insofar as it can be said to have one). I was desperately trying to imagine what a nonce nominal use might import (hurt consciousness as a gilt illumination?), when years of typo-hunting kicked in and it suddenly came to me: Crowley meant limen, ‘the limit below which a given stimulus ceases to be perceptible; the minimum amount of stimulus or nerve-excitation required to produce a sensation. Also called threshold.’ The sense fit perfectly: the wonder never quite rose over the threshold of hurt consciousness. Somewhere along the way an e dropped out, and the intended word was so obscure itself that everyone who looked at this bit of text thereafter must have shrugged and thought “Man, that Crowley knows a lot of words.” Which he does, but in this case his vocabulary has proved fatal to his wounded word’s chances of recovery.


  1. I personally have to wonder if the word was drafted properly, only to see adulteration at the hands of an inexperienced and puzzled copyeditor.
    Just sayin’.

  2. After decades of the meanest obscurity, Crowley was (sadly) refurbished as one of the shock troops in fantastic fiction’s revived campaign to find literary legitimacy. I hope you’ll share what you thought about the novel once you’re finished with it, but for me the best book Crowley’s written is his first—Engine Summer.

  3. LH, Crowley’s in the Alexander Theroux and Gene Wolfe camp of “writers whose vocublaries far outstrip mine but who use their arcana correctly approx. 99% of the time.” I also believe they deploy their vocabulary casually, and thus unpretentiously, although you may not agree with me on this one. And while Wimbrel is correct to note that Engine Summer is a fine, fine novel, it is no Aegypt or Little, Big.
    One final note: Crowley pops into the Valve whenever Holbo discusses his work. A post on his vocabulary, cross-posted there by, I don’t know, one of its contributors may net you a response from the man himself. That’s purely FYI.

  4. Funny. His phrasing made perfect sense to me and I started reading the post surprised you didn’t know the word yourself. Until I realized you were right, it’s not a word, and I doubt I’ve ever seen it before either.
    But I did understand it, nonetheless. It might not be a word in the sense of, has its own tiny secluded alcove for display in the great treasury of words, for the erudite or clueless to seek out or stumble upon. But it is a word in the sense of, comprehensible linguistic unit derived on communal principals, if you think about it.
    There probably isn’t much of a community familiar with the Latin and its abstruse English derivatives yet estranged from the limn you cite. But given that unlikely combination, I think it immediately computes logically (and erroneously) as a proper back-formation of the Latin nominative from its more familiar derivatives, like (sub)liminal. Interfered with by the even more common “limit”, which works to fix “lim” alone as the root, resulting in the compromise mistake “limn”, preserving the felt spelling and pronunciation of the significant root at the same time. Helped by the subconsciously remembered fact that often Latin nominatives do clip the vowel of the oblique cases, and the nice coincidence that “mn” seems like a very Latinate way to end an English word (damn, autumn, etc.) though it couldn’t actually end a word in Latin.
    And who can blame the impulse for back-formation amidst bombarment by monstrosities like “prioritizationalizing”, which you hate to admit even to yourself that you understand?
    Yes, I have put way too much thought into this.

  5. I think you have put way too much thought into it — I like the way you think, mind you, but I suspect that if you step back from your analysis and ponder the relative probabilities of 1) a nonce word created from a false analysis of various words based on Latin limen and 2) the use of the word limen itself (which is perfectly good, if obscure, English), you’ll agree with me that the second is far likelier.

  6. Just a thought: The word ‘limen’ is often associated these days with margins (‘liminality’ is frequently defined as a state of existence ‘in the margins’), and medieval manuscripts were illuminated, or limned, in the margins of the page. Could Crowley have assumed that the verb ‘limn’ derived from the word for ‘margin,’ and nouned the verb accordingly?
    I have to admit that when I saw the word, I thought it must have something to do with lakes (from Greek λίμνη, as in ‘limnology’).

  7. Would you recommend the book?

  8. Haven’t gotten far enough in to have an opinion yet. I’ll report back.

  9. Somewhere in Tacitus — If I was home now I’d look it up and name the general — there is the story of the Roman priests who, before a battle, took money from the enemy to make the omens positive. (The enemy, you see, felt confident and didn’t want the Romans to get away without a battle.) When news of this perfidy came to the general, he announced that the omens, being sacred, could not be wrong, no matter how they were derived. At the same time, priestly sacrilege must not go unpunished, so he put the priests in the front rank, without armor, to lead the charge.
    That’s how I feel about “limn” as a noun. It must be right. The copyeditor, or Crowley himself, whoever it was that failed to get “limen” into the final print run, can be punished later.

  10. You may well be right with limen but I immediately assumed he meant limb, in the astronomical sense: “the outer edge of the apparent disk of a celestial body” (M-W). An astronomer might refer, for instance, to a star rising above the darkened limb of the moon, which in my opinion also fits the Crowley excerpt quite well.

  11. Intriguing! I like that almost better than my suggestion. I may have to try getting in touch with Crowley and get the proper emendation from the horse’s mouth.

  12. …but I immediately assumed he meant limb, in the astronomical sense: “the outer edge of the apparent disk of a celestial body” (M-W).
    Hmmm. Yes, this is one application of the limbus/limbo/limb(n2) complex. Limbo is the fringe of hell; it and limb(n2) (SOED) are derived from Latin limbus, which also gives us English limbus:
    limbus … n. Pl. -bi /-bVI/.LME. [L = edge, border, (in med.L) region on the border of hell.]1 = LIMBO n.1 1. Now rare. LME. 2 techn. A border, a margin; spec. (Anat.) the margin of the cornea; Bot. = LIMB n.2 2b. L17.
    limbo … n.1 Pl. -os.LME. [L, abl. sing. of LIMBUS, in phrs. like in limbo, e (= out of) limbo.]1 Chr. Ch. A region supposed in some beliefs to exist on the border of Hell as the abode of the just who died before Christ’s coming and of unbaptized infants. LME.b Hell, Hades. L16–M17.2 Prison, confinement. Formerly also, pawn. slang. L16.3 An unfavourable place or condition, likened to limbo; esp. a condition of neglect or oblivion to which people or things are consigned when regarded as superseded, useless, or absurd; an intermediate or indeterminate condition; a state of inaction or inattention pending some future event. M17.3 E. HUXLEY Legally, the Irish occupy a curious limbo.U. LE GUIN A fever that..left him in a limbo between reason and unreason.JAN MORRIS Hav remained in a kind of limbo until..the League of Nations declared its mandate.Independent These prisoners are totally in limbo..No one is responsible for their welfare.Comb.: []limbo-lake the abode of spirits or tormented souls.
    limb … n.2LME. [(O)Fr. limbe or L LIMBUS.] []1 = LIMBO n.1 1. Sc. LME–L18.2 Sci. An edge; spec. (a) the graduated edge of a scientific instrument, esp. a quadrant; (b) the edge of the disc of a celestial object, esp. of the sun and moon. LME.b Bot. The lamina or expanded portion of a monopetalous corolla or of a petal or sepal. Also, the lamina or blade of a leaf. M18.3 A border. rare. LME. Comb.: limb-darkening Astron. the apparent darkening of the face of the sun towards its edge.
    Apologies to those allergic to verbosity. I thought it might be useful to have all this on the table.
    So far I like LH’s hypothesis, but I’ll be interested to see what his further research reveals.

  13. A Bible critic would say that we should be looking for the lectio difficlior, and so your English limen is not to be preferred.
    Although I’m very grateful for your teaching me the word (limen) anyway.

  14. Like Jeff, I understood it perfectly well the first time I read it. Working out how took a little longer.
    Try this – in the production of an illustrated manuscript a limner was the one who delineated a space to be gilded or coloured. The limn was the fine line he drew. Meaning then extended to the whole illustration process and only later to painting, especially portraiture. Portrait painting was for a long time seen as making the definitive description of the character rather than the physical attributes of the person – see Holbein’s Christina of Denmark.
    In vernacular architecture the threshold delineates the space which is “yours” or “inside” rather than out – note attention given to its quality and later its cleanliness, above and beyond any structural purpose.
    Or I could just be talking rubbish.

  15. The limn was the fine line he drew.
    Except that there is no such thing as a “limn.” You “understood” it because you assumed it was correct and created a meaning to fit; if you can explain to me exactly how the phrase “the limn of hurt consciousness” works, given the verbal meaning of limn, in a convincing way, I’ll rethink my position, but since limen makes perfect since and (as far as I can see) limn doesn’t (even leaving aside its nonexistence), I’m standing pat for now.

  16. Hat says
    Except that there is no such thing as a “limn.” You “understood” it because you assumed it was correct and created a meaning to fit;
    but in the neighboring post he quotes Paul Goodman as saying
    The most intimate speech, the most convivial speech, the most expressive speech, the most poetic speech are likely to be “deviant.” But they are not deviant; they can be reasoned a posteriori. … The issue is not whether speakers have a private language—of course they do not—but whether good socialization (and good society) does not require spontaneity, concreteness, and invention in the intercourse of its members.
    There didn’t used to be such a thing as a “limn”, but there is now. God bless America!

  17. theophylact says:

    The Deep (1975) and Beasts (1976) both appeared before Engine Summer. But I think that Little, Big is the finest fantasy novel of the 20th Century, and by gad, I’ve read a lot of them.

  18. anon: If Crowley (or some reliable stand-in, like his editor) tells me he meant “limn” (and hopefully gives me some idea of what he meant by it), I’ll be glad to accept it as a writer’s happy inspiration. Until then, I’ll continue to think that a typo is the more likely explanation.
    theophylact: OK, praise like that is hard to ignore. I’m putting it on my reading list.

  19. Limn as a noun makes perfect sense from an onomatapoeic point of view.
    Why do writers even use “limn” the verb if all it means is “depict”? Presumably, because they like the sound of “limn.” What does it sound like? In the context of our currently-active language, I suggest that the word has a striking and therefore signfying sound — apart from its meaning — because it’s (a) very light — more the sonic weight of a preposition or pronoun than of a typical noun or verb — but (b) it’s endowed with a sculptural precision because of the now-rare and delicate “mn” sound (which we’re more likely to hear in tiny “limn” than in more common words like “condemn”.) The word sounds like a delicate, finely-wrought miniature. In older forms of English, which had more words similar to it, it may not have had this quality at all. But it does in comtemporary English, which is what Crowley is writing.
    Because it’s such a striking word, now, I think we can’t help but attend to the connotations it raises. I’m not saying that the word DEnotes anything more than “to depict” — I defer to the dictionary on that — but its sound does seem to CONnote a particular way of depicting. The sheer sonic fragility of “limn” makes it easy to read as suggesting a fragile or suggestive depiction. Photographs depict, great paintings limn.
    So from that, a “limn of hurt consciousness” made sense to me with limn meaning “delicate, imperceptible boundary” or “the difference between a journalistic photograph of x and a great painting of x” or “the thresshold where art happens.” It is the boundary which one crosses only by limning.
    In short, this is one of those cases where the music makes the meaning. Philologically, you’re right, it doesn’t make sense. But poetically — as a delicate antique word against the background of modern English — it does.
    Make sense?

  20. You’re the boss, LH!
    I did, though, find limn as a noun – various shades of meaning – here
    (I stopped looking when I got to three examples.)

  21. Well found, Maureen! Here are her examples.
    From a review of a history of the House of Tatas:
    At a limn when the national mood is often wanting in pride, the history of the Tatas shows us a way cobbled with vision, foresight, integrity and passion.
    From a poem by Kamau Brathwaite:
    But this is something something something
    other. some some. thing else beyond the paradigm
    far far beyond the limn
    of para

    From a (quite nice) poem by Monica Ferrell:
    while her body dissolves into netting, the knots
    widen and widen until the limn of her
    is finished, she melted to loops of distance …

    I find the first use completely incomprehensible, whether because it’s part of Indian English or is simply bad writing. The remaining two examples are poetic, but both make sense to me as a shorter equivalent of limning in its normal meaning. None of them explain Crowley’s usage to me (if it in fact was his intended word), but I take my hat off to you for digging them out of the midden heap of the internet.
    Make sense?
    Only if you accept Humpty Dumpty’s claim that a word means whatever you want it to mean. You’ve created a series of guesses about what the word might mean in context if it were an unknown word in a half-known language, Etruscan perhaps, but I don’t think you’re dealing with the language as we have it.

  22. I too am among the intuitive cadre who “understood” it without benefit of lexicographical authority—probably by association with “limning,” to drawn an outline, thus making it “a realization that didn’t quite make it over the lintel (there’s a new one) of conscious thought.”
    My explanation is drawn from the painful personal experience, as a writer, of using a word or term or expression I am positive I have encountered before—only to find, at the last stage of rigorous vetting, that a) no reference work recognizes it, or now, in the cyber age, that b) examples on Google are few and far between and sometimes non-existent.
    Humble example:
    Everyone knows “Ustate” refers to northern New York state, those hinterlands removed from the metropolis. (Cf. Edmund Wilson.) But what about “outstate,” for the equally remote western portions of the territory? I know I have seen and heard it used, more than once, by someone with reason to know—but where is that person now?
    It can happen to the high as well as the low.

  23. Been a while. Hmm…the second two examples both seem to me to mean the same thing I interpreted the original one to mean- “threshold, extreme”. Though really, I don’t see much difference here between the opposing theories of the origin of the dubious word.
    The word “limen” exists, and “limn” not, that much is clear. The question is why the error? I agree with you that my musings seem to amount to something complicated, but spelling mistakes of unfamiliar words are often just like that in English, don’t you think? Educated speakers have to navigate whole internal alien provinces of imported orthographies– French, Latin, Greek, and so on. The spelling judgements we make in obscure cases seem to me to possibly involve quite a number of factors–the register, the assumed national origin of the word, the felt relations with other more familiar vocabulary, and so on.
    I’m not so confident about own my particular explanation, but something like it would seem very plausible to me. In practice, all it would boil down to is an attempt to explain why to the author at the time of the typo, it just “felt like it should be spelled that way.” I think a lot of simple word-feeling in speakers actually turns out to be fairly complex in the elucidation.

  24. I agree, assuming the author actually did type “limn,” in which case all sorts of possibilities come into play. That just seems to me an unwarranted/unlikely assumption given the alternative hypothesis of a typo. Now, the word I’m assuming he meant is an extremely obscure one, and with most authors I’d weigh the likelihoods the other way, in favor of his having written limn, but Crowley is so learned (I discovered he wrote another book with an a-e ligature in the title, Ægypt—is that a modern record?) that I tend to favor mine. Only a tendency, though; I agree that all of you who are interpreting it as it stands may well be correct. I’m a stubborn cuss, that’s all.

  25. Tangential factoids, unrhymed chiming, and wanton speculation: New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani is somehat, er, somewhat known for her frequent use of the word limn, apparently it’s an inside joke among writers and critics. A quick look at the first few results of a google search (of kakutani and limn) shows limn used in this context at least once as a noun. With a Pulitzer Prize in her CV, maybe she’s considered fair game in certain circles, though probably not inside the beltway, not yet anyway. But, if either Monsieur Rove or Monsieur Libby needs a book deal to cover his legal fees, and gets a review he doesn’t like, all bets are off the record. Nevertheless, considering LanguageHat’s deconstruction, having found typos in more than a few published books, and after spell-checking limen in Microsoft Word resulted in limn offered as one of the corrections, I’m inclined to agree with the idea that limen might have been the intended word. One more thing, if you go to the New York Times website and type “subject mater” in the search box (including quotation marks) you will find that “Crowley’s subject mater is grand and serious, involving nothing less than the souls of nations and the transforming power of language.”

  26. the transforming power of language
    The power of transforming language, too, it seems.

  27. after spell-checking limen in Microsoft Word resulted in limn offered as one of the corrections
    Aha! If the language is set to US or UK English, yes. But set it to Australian English and Word accepts limen. (Draw what conclusions you will, to favour your favoured affiliation.)

  28. I have nothing much to add, except that I, too, immediately and without any hesitation whatsoever understood it as meaning ‘threshold’. I think I associated it with ‘subliminal’. Like Jeff I didn’t have the slightest suspicion that the word ‘limn’ in this sense didn’t exist. Sad, isn’t it.

  29. I’m actually hoping now that he did write “limn,” because it’s certainly a nicer-sounding word than limen, and if enough people use it as a noun then by George it will be a noun—judging from this comment thread, there’s a ready-made constituency for it.

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