What does ‘limning’ mean?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: limning.

My colleague John Friesen is a voracious reader. I can tell by the wide variety of texts he sends me, usually with interesting or unusual words highlighted.

Recently, he sent me an April 23 Mark Landler story, published in the New York Times Magazine and headlined “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk.” And the word he highlighted? Limning, gerund of the verb to limn. Here’s how Landler used the term:

In showing her stripes as a prospective commander in chief, Clinton will no doubt draw heavily upon her State Department experience — filtering the lessons she learned in Libya, Syria and Iraq into the sinewy worldview she has held since childhood. Last fall, in a series of policy speeches, Clinton began limning distinctions with the president on national security. 

The word has two distinct meanings: (1) to depict or describe in painting or words and (2) to suffuse or highlight (something) with a bright color or light. It seems clear to me that Landler intended to convey meaning number 1, although I’m uncertain why he used such a relatively obscure word.

The word dates back to the early 15th century, coming from the Middle English luminen, meaning “to illuminate manuscripts.” This, in turn, came from the Old French lumina meaning to “light up, illuminate,” which came from the Latin luminary meaning to “illuminate, burnish.” The sense of “portray, depict” was first recorded in the 1590s.