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 [Wikipedia], 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.

  12. ktschwarz says

    Contrecoup hasn’t needed any help since 2008, when it played a starring role in Stephen King’s Duma Key. In fact, contrecoup never needed any help in the first place. When Erin McKean claimed there were no citations for it between 1882 and 2003, she was just medically ignorant. (I checked: is dead now, but the episode is still archived by WNYC, and yes, that’s what she said.) Contrecoup injuries can be found in titles and abstracts of English-language medical journals in every decade of the 20th century, using Google Scholar. Furthermore, the word was heard by millions of TV viewers: contrecoup injuries were mentioned on M*A*S*H in 1976 and Star Trek Voyager in 1996.

    Of course, Erin McKean didn’t have those resources in January 2005. Google Scholar had just launched and would have had a lot less coverage, and I only know about the TV references from Wikipedia, which has only had them since 2012 and 2015. Nevertheless, in her citations from 2003, weren’t there any medical journals, which in turn would have cited older journals? You’d think that before burbling on the radio “were people just not having this injury for a hundred years?” she might have, you know, asked a doctor. I expected better from a senior editor at OUP.

    citing a word without attestation would be a violation of lexicographical ethics, but encouraging such attestation is perfectly in order.

    It was only ever a joke anyway, but if she had put it in without any attestations beyond the song that she asked them to write, that’s not living language, it’s a stunt like Auden pulled with the OED.

  13. When Erin McKean claimed there were no citations for it between 1882 and 2003, she was just medically ignorant. […] Nevertheless, in her citations from 2003, weren’t there any medical journals, which in turn would have cited older journals? You’d think that before burbling on the radio “were people just not having this injury for a hundred years?” she might have, you know, asked a doctor. I expected better from a senior editor at OUP.

    You seem to be unclear about both the meaning of “citation” and the duties of a lexicographer. “Citation” does not mean “words in use,” it means “slips of paper in the appropriate drawer” (or, these days, computer file). If you open the CON-COO drawer, find the “contrecoup” file, and don’t see any slips for a certain period, then there are no citations for that period. It is not her job to have specialized medical knowledge, nor to call up doctors and ask if they know of any uses — if you’ll think about it, you’ll see that wouldn’t make any sense. If she wants more citations, she puts out a call, which is what she did. You may have expected better, but if her bosses are happy with her work, I’m pretty sure that’s what matters to her.

  14. Alexandra Molotkow takes a deep dive into limerence for Pioneer Works (LO = limerent object):

    Working with a graduate student, Duyen Vo, [Albert] Wakin developed an alternative model of limerence, positing it as a disorder with elements of both OCD and substance use disorder.

    Limerence, they write, radiates from an overwhelming desire for emotional reciprocation, and is driven by the uncertainty of obtaining it. As in addiction, receiving a “hit” of an LO’s attention—the suggestion that they just might feel the same way—can feel euphoric. After a while, you need this level of attention just to feel “normal.” You spend a great deal of time strategizing about how to get the next “hit,” and experience physical symptoms when it’s not forthcoming. As with OCD, a person experiencing limerence engages in compulsive behaviors, or “mental acts,” to reduce the uncertainty—talking incessantly to friends about LO, rereading their texts, walking past their favorite spots. They know that none of this is healthy or rational, but they just can’t stop.

    Limerence tethers your mood to somebody else’s behavior. There’s no fixed fix, no set of rituals you can rely on for temporary relief. Instead, you are constantly “calibrating and recalibrating” your thoughts and behaviors to your LO’s responses. “Although limerence resembles normative love,” Wakin and Vo write, “it is a state that is necessarily negative, problematic, and impairing, with clinical implications.” Wakin has called for limerence to be added to the authoritative Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known popularly as the DSM. […]

    “I don’t think limerence is a disorder,” says Julia Pema Dolma Gutman, a therapist based in New York. “It should stay in the realm of the human condition.” This is part of Gutman’s broader philosophy: she thinks we’re too quick to pathologize psychic pain, and that some degree of it is part of a life well-lived. She’s never heard “limerence” used in clinical context, but knows of its cultural cachet, and has experienced it several times herself. “I think it’s common, healthy, positive, even if you suffer in despair. And I would be wary of medicalizing it, and monetizing it in that way.” The symptoms involved can certainly be disruptive, she says, but in instances where they were causing significant distress, she would look for underlying causes—attachment issues, OCD, anxiety disorder—and treat those directly.

    The tension between Gutman and Wyant’s views corresponds roughly to the “crush” vs. “not-crush” debate on limerence message boards: is it a clinical issue, or just a regular thing people go through? At what level of intensity does it cross over from one to the other? Tennov’s semantic approach left behind a host of semantic problems. It gave us a word for a condition that feels distinct, with a set of common characteristics. But the more people you talk to, the more variably it manifests, in experience and interpretation.

  15. PlasticPaddy says

    For me the issue on whether it is clinical should be based on how the “patient” presents, not how the patient feels. In the case of a “crush”, does the “crushee” find the attentions of the “crusher” unpleasant or even threatening?

  16. While that can of course be an important fact for the crushee, I fail to see what relevance it has to the state of mind of the person experiencing the crush. I have been a crushee myself; in the particular instance I am thinking of at the moment, due to the circumstances I found the situation a little sad, a little amusing, and a little touching, but surely whether I welcomed it or not would not have any bearing on how one diagnosed the crusher. The whole point of a crush (or episode of limerence) is that the actual crushee has nothing to do with it — it’s all about some romantic image inspired by the crushee.

  17. John Cowan says

    Indeed, the crushee may remain entirely ignorant. Many people have crushes on film stars, but the film stars do not know who is crushing on them.

  18. PlasticPaddy says

    How does someone who has a crush on a film star get a “hit” of a LO’s attention? I suppose everything is in the imagination. Does not strike me as clinical by itself, unless the person with the crush believes he has been invited to get up close and personal with the film star and acts on this belief.

  19. Well, people write letters and publish fanfic, specifically RP (‘real person’) fanfic. I love fanfic in general, but I find RP rather disgusting.

  20. wp on RP fic eugh, yes.

    Isn’t the R rather at odds with the fic? Or the RP is just treated as an idealised cipher?

    Perhaps JC could elaborate on what argot is going on here [from wp]:

    Politician fic is sometimes used as a form of satire, or to highlight the underlying biases or attitudes of the politician being portrayed, although more recently there has been an increase in more ‘ordinary’ fan fiction about British politicians in particular, with a notable emphasis on slash.

    Double-eugh, if it’s about any British politician I’m aware of.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    Indeed. Squamous and rugose. Batrachian, even.

  22. Isn’t the R rather at odds with the fic?

    I find I increasingly have this problem with fiction in general. I don’t see the point of sticking Napoleon or whoever into a novel (as a character, of course, not as a current event); since no author can possibly know the actual person well enough (as opposed to a fictional character, who can be known as well as necessary for the novel), it seems to me pure snobbery, as if ordinary people aren’t important enough on their own hook. I make an exception for authors who do it as brilliantly as, say, Hilary Mantel.

  23. Squamous and rugose. Batrachian, even.

    I see m’learned colleague is on the same wavelength.

    … used as a form of satire

    I more meant, though, how is satire even possible? with events that would stretch credulity beyond snapping point if they were in a work of fiction.

    @Hat I increasingly have this problem with fiction in general.

    Yeah. It came home to me with The Hours (I saw the movie, which put me off reading the book.) After Mrs Dalloway (both the book and the movie) which seemed palpably real (_and_ the ever-numinous Vanessa Redgrave) — portraying Woolf’s suicide seemed entirely gratuitous; all I could think of was Kidman’s prosthetic nose.

  24. Hat: In War and Peace, does Napoleon count as a character or a current event? If he is a character, do you consider his presence pointless, or do you make an exception for Tolstoy as you do for Mantel?

    AntC: The only jargon term I see there is slash, short for slash fiction.

    (I should explain that my objections to RP fanfic are primarily to fanfic about living persons, where the line between fiction and libel is practically impossible to draw.)

  25. not to push us back to a different can of worms, but i think “fic” has a very interesting relationship to “paraliterature”, especially now that it includes works that don’t take their settings or characters from pre-existing material, and not solely fanfic or slash. they’re not exactly overlapping, though, since the core meaning of “fic” has to do with lack of incorporation into the publishing industry*, and “paraliterature” is partly defined by its specific place within that industry.

    as i see it, apart from being free from the publishing industry’s legal imperative to avoid, disguise, or disclaim living people and the litigious dead as subjects, RP fic is basically the same genre as historical fiction, understood broadly (including for example The Count of Monte Cristo and Scaramouche as well as The Memoirs of Hadrian, and Ladies Almanack and Primary Colors** as well as Men Against the Sea).

    and i can take or leave the presence of non-fictional people in narrative prose. mostly what matters to me, especially in past settings, is who gets to count as people and how much attention is given to the material realities of everyday life. (which is, i think, why the inner lives of the ennobled men of Wolf Hall left me cold compared to the depiction of how palace and manor architecture shaped the precarious lives of the women in The Other Boleyn Girl, regardless of mantel and gregory’s respective skill with prose)

    * there’s a rosa luxemburg-inspired analysis to be done on the incorporation of fic writers (and adapted fic texts) into the industry; maybe i’ll write it sometime.

    ** the distinction between historical fiction and roman a clef is pretty arbitrary, though they sometimes use a different research methodology.

  26. Hat: In War and Peace, does Napoleon count as a character or a current event? If he is a character, do you consider his presence pointless, or do you make an exception for Tolstoy as you do for Mantel?

    I don’t know! Tolstoy is almost as infuriating a writer as he is a person; he’s both brilliant and petty, and I feel differently about him (and his characters) every time I read him.

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