The Case For The Confusing Headline

The Baltimore Sun reports today that a front page headline featuring the word “limn” drew some rather confounded feedback from readers.

From Jill Rosen’s report:

The offending word was “limn” (pronounced like “limb”). It appeared over a story about the leading contenders vying to become Baltimore County’s next executive. The headline read: “Opposing votes limn difference in race.”

“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.”

Rupert would never have let this happen.

Ms. Shaw has a point—when I read the headline on Rosen’s report about Tuesday’s offending headline, I admit to scratching my own head. Hers read: “The Sun goes out on a ‘limn’ with unusual headline.” Limn?

Still, confused and belittled though I was, I might be inclined to agree with the paper’s night production manager, John E. McEntyre, quoted in the piece as saying, “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.”

I picked up one such little brick while reading a free Metro paper on the NYC subway last Wednesday. Next to a rather rotund man covering his chest, the headline read: “Ashamed of your moobs?… You’re not alone.”

Moobs. Good word.

Frankly, I would go further than McEntyre. Some say there are up to a million words in the English language, and that we only use five thousand or so on a regular basis. And yet we restrict our headline writers so greatly. If only for the sake of our pathetic vocabularies, The Sun s should keep its limns firmly attached (sorry). After all, who needs clarity when you can have beautiful, propaedeutic confusion?

Got any favorite confusing headlines? Let us know below.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.