Joel Meares at the Columbia Journalism Review tips readers off to the incredibly true story of that time the Baltimore Sun used a word in a headline that completely perplexed its readership. The headline in question was "Opposing votes limn difference in race." And now, when you put that into Google, all the top results refer to the confusion that the word "limn" caused the city of Baltimore.
"I had to keep looking at it again and again," complained Carol N. Shaw, one of a number of readers who contacted The Sun yesterday. "I consider myself an educated person. I graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Maryland, College Park some years ago with a degree in international relations/economics. I have never heard of the word "limn." ... To put a word like "limn" in the headline for the lead article on the front page of this newspaper seems to me to be unbelievably arrogant and patronizing."
Really? "Arrogant and patronizing?" That basically opens the door for this University of Virginia-educated dick to point out that there are five words in the above that pretty much explain what went wrong. I'll let the Sun's John E. McIntyre take the high road:
"Speaking as a headline writer myself, though not the author of this one, I heartily endorse all sorts of short verbs that are neither scatological nor obscene," he said. "Speaking as a language maven, I applaud when people consult dictionaries to add another little brick to the wall of their vocabularies. Now that you know what it means, it is yours forever."
Strictly defined, "limn" is a verb that means "to draw or paint on a surface" or "to outline in clear sharp detail." It's a great word! It's the kind of word that Michiko Kakutani's readership grapples with successfully. But critics do have a point: the Sun's headline would have performed a lot better on the web if "limn" had been swapped out for "Justin Bieber."
When it comes to vocabulary deficiency-induced calamity, this is nothing compared to that time an aide to Washington, DC mayor Anthony Williams named David Howard used the word "niggardly" (correctly, I might add) and everyone freaked right the hell out because they thought it was a racial slur. Howard was forced to tender his resignation but was rehired after the mayor's office conducted an internal review. (An internal review of what? The dictionary?)
Anyway, we talk pretty one day, the end.