What is liminality?

Word count: 233 words

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

If you build your vocabulary, you’ll not only benefit your reading, you’ll also become more precise in your writing. Here is my word of the week, liminality.

When I read liminality, an image of a doorway floated through my brain. Here is the sentence in which I recently encountered the word, in a Globe & Mail review of Rachel Cusk’s book Aftermath.

Cusk, too, thrives in liminality; it is precisely in unsettled, shifting terrain that her voice is most compelling and assured.

And, it turns out I was right. Well, sort of. The root, limen originates from Latin and means, “threshold, cross-piece or sill” — in other words, the bottom part of a doorway. But liminality has a more nuanced meaning. It was adopted by anthropology in 1909 and intended to describe the middle part of any coming-of-age-ritual. (Today, the day after Labour Day, think of children going to school for the first time.) Liminality is the time when a person is neither here nor there – not one thing or another, but, instead, in transition.

I like the way the sentence from the review, which was written by novelist Alison Pick, almost defines the term by referring to “unsettled, shifting terrain.”

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