Thursday, January 28, 2016

Silence of the Limns

There's this word limn that isn't exactly widely used, or even widely known, but somehow I've seen it used at least three times in the last week. If I believed in signs, I would take that as a sign that I should write about it.

And I'm going to write about it anyway.

Limn is a verb that means to outline or to draw or paint on a surface. In earlier times, it meant to illuminate, as with a manuscript. I don't mean shining a light on an old book, but, as Merriam-Webster puts it so well, decorating "with gold or silver or brilliant colors or with often elaborate designs or miniature pictures." If you're picturing artistic monks copying religious texts by hand and decorating margins and drop-caps with intricate illustrations, you've hit the nail on the head. Those monks were limning their texts.*

In fact, limn comes from the Latin illuminare, from which we also get words like luminary, luminous, and, of course, illuminate.

Dear Diary, I spent four days writing the first letter of
this entry, and now I forgot what I wanted to write down.
(Image courtesy of the Walters Art Museum)
These days, though, writers seem to prefer a more poetic, less work-a-day use of the word. One of the examples I read last week involved a person crossing between the narrator and the front end of a parked car, her silhouette limned by the bright headlights.

What I find interesting about limn, though, is that it is a homophone of limb. We've got plenty of (okay, maybe a dozen or two) words that are delineated from their homophonic counterparts by a single silent letter —lamb, damn, jamb, reign — but I can't think of any pair of homophones besides limn/limb that each contain a silent letter and that differ only by which silent letter appears in the word. (If you find one, let me know!)

I also like that it's possible to limn a limb, even if you aren't very limber.

English is weird. Thank goodness.

If you look up limn in a dictionary, you're bound to notice the word limnetic nearby. Although limn and limnetic look like a perfectly good verb/adjective pair (like mime/mimetic), don't be fooled.

Limnetic — from the Greek limnÄ“, pool or marshy lake — refers to something of, related to, or inhabiting a body of fresh water. Related words use a limno- root instead of limne-. For example, a limnologist studies freshwater habitats; a limnobiologist studies all the little fishies and other critters in a freshwater lake; and a limnophobic much prefers dry land.

* The perfect title for a book about the history of these artistic scribes would be Life and Limn.