13 May 2019

In an on-stage conversation at the Caught by the River event in Hebden Bridge at the end of March, nature writer Tim Dee amicably admonished his colleague Rob Cowen for using the word liminal. Were I the sort of chap to punch the air and whoop in approval, I would have done just that. Instead, I later simply tweeted my general agreement.

You never heard the word liminal until a few years back. True we had subliminal (as in advertising), and sublimation (as in chemicals changing directly from solid to gas), both of which appear to use the same Latin root, limen, meaning ‘threshold’. When you’re in a liminal state, you’re in transition, passing through some metaphorical doorway between two very different modes of being. Or, at least, that’s how I interpret what’s supposed to be going on.

Liminal is a perfectly good technical term. The problem is, everyone suddenly seems to be using the damn word—and much of the time they seem to be using it to convey some mystical or magical transition. It’s the sort of word beloved by people who also use the word spiritual (another of my pet peeves). As a person who stubbornly insists he’s made of atoms and nothing else, with no ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, the word liminal, used in the way it increasingly is, really gets on my tits. I don’t know whether Tim Dee objects to it on similar grounds, or whether he simply dislikes trendy neologisms that have already become clichés. Perhaps both. Or perhaps he dislikes the word for some other reason entirely. It wouldn’t surprise me.

I had a lovely experience out on our patio an hour or so after sunset this evening. Old Town Mill was silhouetted in the salmony-pink afterglow on the north west skyline. A waxing gibbous moon hung high and hazy above. The garden robin was singing his heart out in the remaining light, while three of the local pipistrelle bats flew circles around my head, hunting for insects attracted to the residual heat radiating from our west-facing wall. To cap it all, a tawny owl hooted from somewhere nearby.

It was a wonderful moment of transition from day to night: sunset and moon; robin and owl; bats in the gloaming. It’s impossible to describe how special it felt. But the one word I sure as hell won’t be deploying from my limited, materialist vocabulary is liminal. I don’t see how that would help.

Richard Carter

Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. He is currently working on a book about looking at the world through Darwin’s eyes.Website · Newsletter · Mastodon · Facebook

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