“Liminal” Is Not a “Fancy Word”

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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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8 thoughts on ““Liminal” Is Not a “Fancy Word””

  1. What I find interesting is that the similar-sounding words “liminal” (having to do with boundaries) and “limn” (having to do with lines) have completely different etymologies. (BTW, Firefox’s built-in spellchecker does not recognize “liminal”. I had to add it.)

  2. Well if someone, particularly from NPR, feels that he or she must apologize for using an unusual word, I don’t feel that the person is really wanting to educate me. I feel he or she is patronzing me–the person is saying, “I have to explain this word because you are not as smart as I am.”

    Am I getting my point across, my snuggy-wuggy, snookums friend?

  3. I don’t see why it’s such an unusual word…”subliminal” is very common, so where is the big leap? Or am I being too optimistic about how educated people are these days?
    Also wanted to mention, in medicalese we use the word “limbus,” which is the border or junction of the cornea and the sclera of the eye (basically where the iris, or colored part, which is covered by cornea, meets the white part, which is the sclera…should I apologize for maybe using fancy words? I’m not explaining this for my fellow Americans…I’m explaining for any ESL’ers who happen by…so I am not being a snooty smartypants, Jim! 🙂

  4. According to http://www.wordcount.org, ‘liminal’ is the 68,679th commonest word in the English language. That puts it right between ‘melas’ and ‘mannesmann’. But ‘subliminal’ comes in at only 34,438.

    So–I’m guessing–that means people with a 68,679 word vocabulary are equally as likely to know ‘liminal’ and to not know it. That’s if you count vocabulary the way wordcount.org does.

    I doubt that wordcount.org counts words the same way most vocabulary tests count them. Wordcount tends to count variations of words that other vocabulary counters don’t recognize as distinctly different words.

    For example (or should I write e.g.? I didn’t study Latin), ‘crystallize’ comes in at 38,235 while the British spelling, ‘crystallise’, comes in at 50.005. But my dictionary claims them as the same word–which makes more sense.

    So, roughly dividing wordcount.org’s count by two, I get that ‘liminal’ would be equally as likely to be known or unknown by adult readers with a 35,000 word vocabulary. But not a scientific method.

  5. ‘liminal’ would be equally as likely to be known or unknown by adult readers with a 35,000 word vocabulary.

    So, (heh heh) liminal displays liminality in regard to common use. Appropriate, I suppose.

  6. ‘Liminal’ was an extremely obscure technical term until the 1990s. People over the age of 50 might well have never encountered the word at all, despite being highly-educated voracious readers. My college dictionary (Webster’s New World Collegiate, 2nd edition, 1979) defines ‘liminal’ as “of or at the limen” (full stop). ‘Limen’ is defined as a translation of German /schwelle/, used in psychology to mean ‘threshold’. My wife’s American Heritage (new college edition) from a couple of years later only lists ‘liminal’ as the adjectival form of ‘limen’, “the threshold of a physiological or psychological response”.

    So, no — liminal is NOT a word that “anyone who has progressed very far beyond the Ayres list” will necessarily be familiar with. I had never heard it until today, which perhaps will not be persuasive to you but is conclusive for me.

  7. I’m with Dr. Dave. 51 years old, the informal “go-to” person for vocabulary words at my place of work, only recently started hearing and reading the word “liminal.” I’m trying to work out how it relates to “subliminal,” such a common word. I suppose a subliminal feeling is below the sensory threshold; but “liminal” doesn’t seem to be used with reference to the senses very often.

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