“Liminal” Is Not a “Fancy Word”
The other morning I heard someone on NPR use the word liminal. He immediately referred to it apologetically as “a fancy word.”
Granted, liminal is not an everyday word, but it is one that adult readers encounter if they progress very far beyond the Ayres List. (The Extended Ayres List is a list of 1500 of the most common words, ranked by difficulty. It’s widely used as a spelling and vocabulary benchmark in US schools.)
A cursory Web search indicates that the NPR announcer is not alone in feeling he must apologize for using the word liminal. The following examples are typical:
Liminal is a fancy word for having to do with a boundary.
The academics have a fancy word for this space; they call it the “liminal”.
Liminal is a fancy word that means “1: of or relating to a sensory threshold; 2: barely perceptible; 3: of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition: in-between, transitional.”
The noun liminality gets the same treatment:
Liminality is a fancy word meaning “a place of in-between-ness.
The adjective liminal and the noun liminality are used with specialized meanings in psychology and cultural anthropology, but the words have found their way into the general vocabulary and have been in frequent use at least since the 1980s. Here are the general-purpose definitions:
liminal adjective: characterized by being on a boundary or threshold, especially by being transitional or intermediate between two states or situations.
liminality noun: a transitional or indeterminate state between stages of a person’s life; an indeterminate state between different spheres of existence.
At least some writers targeting a popular audience are able to use liminal without apology:
He’s wrecked, too, by his liminal racial status: His father was an Irishman, his mother was black and he comfortably claims neither.—The NY Times.
They [people mistakenly declared dead by government bureaucracy] basically can end up like Tom Hanks in “The Terminal,” wandering around in terrible liminal state of boredom and frustration, except without Catherine Zeta Jones for company.—The Washington Post
…film noir occupies a liminal space somewhere between Europe and America, between high modernism and “blood melodrama,” and between low-budget crime movies and art cinema. More than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, James Naremore, University of California Press.
Knowing the etymology of liminal makes it especially easy to learn. It derives from limen, the Latin word for threshold, the narrow part of a doorway that lies between two rooms or between the outside and the inside of a house. A person standing framed in a doorway is “in a liminal state” between larger spaces intended to be occupied.
Words represent meaning. Some are more common in general usage than others, but any reader can learn any word.
I don’t think that liminal is harder to learn than any other word that has entered the general vocabulary from the sciences. I’ve never noticed a speaker or a writer refer to neurotic or psychotic as “fancy words.”
Writers who apologize for using unfamiliar words seem to assume that their readers are ignorant and wish to remain that way.
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