• liminal •
li-mi-nêl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. On the threshold, just passing over a threshold, incipient, as a liminal understanding of oneself. 2. Barely perceptible, as a liminal odor or liminal sensation on the skin. 3. (Cultural Anthropology) Transitional, referring to a period in human life when a person is changing, moving from one state (across the threshold) to another.
Notes: Today's strikingly beautiful word is slipping far too quickly out of fashion. Look at all the wonderful meanings it has! We hear subliminal "below the threshold (of consciousness)" much more as a result of the impact of Freudian psychology on the Western world. Today's word comes with a noun, liminality, and may also, of course, be used adverbially, attired in the appropriate suffix: liminally.
In Play: Have you ever finished a meal and felt like saying, "The main course had the liminal flavor of fish. Did I guess right?" How many times have I said to a student, "I have a liminal sense of what you just said but I can't quite grasp the point." Don't forget that liminal can imply a threshold: "Ida Claire lives in some liminal state between student and teacher that her education degree didn't push her through." I don't know if that is good or bad.
Word History: Today's word comes from the Latin word limen "threshold" capped by the adjective suffix -al. Exactly where this word's root came from is unknown; however, we do know that it is related to another Latin word limes, limitis "field boundary, limit." Both these words may have been inherited by Latin from Proto-Indo-European leim- "bend" + suffixes -in and -it. This word also came through Old Germanic to English as limb. As you can see, this story leaves us with a very big hole to fill: the semantic gap between "bend" and "boundary" is wide and treacherous and no one knows how to get across it. (We hope today's Good Word suggestion is a liminal contribution from Professor Kyu Ho Youm, First Amendment Chair of the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication—liminal in the first sense, of course.)