The Compulsive Copyeditor

January 7, 2020

“The agony of being in a limbic state”

Filed under: ambiguity,etymology,puns,typography,Usage Find of the Day — amba12 @ 11:18 pm

Being at war for so long has left a considerable number of Americans unable to reconcile their global dominance with the agony of being in a limbic state of neither peace nor victory.

Is the author of this Daily Beast piece, Spencer Ackerman, referring to the limbic system, the network of subcortical brain areas that is the axis of emotion? Or does he think that “limbic” is the adjectival form of “limbo”? (Does “limbo” even have an adjectival form?)

Either—or both—would fit. His point actually is that being unable to achieve the consummation and catharsis of victory in the Middle East has left the U.S. and its citizens in a state of limbic limbo.

Here’s the marvelous Online Etymological Dictionary (the “free OED”—you should know it and use it! ) tracing the roots of the words limbic and limbo:

limbic (adj.)

“pertaining to or characteristic of a border,” 1879, in anatomy, in reference to the brain, from French limbique (1878, Broca), from limbe (14c.), from Latin limbus “edge” (see limb (n.2)). Limbic system is attested from 1950.

limbo (n.1)

region supposed to exist on the border of Hell, reserved for pre-Christian saints (Limbus patrum) and unbaptized infants (Limbus infantum);” c. 1300, from Latin limbo, ablative singular of limbus “edge, border” (see limb (n.2)). In frequent use in Latin phrases such as in limbo (patrum), which is entirely Latin, but the in was taken as English and hence the Latin ablative became the English noun. Figurative sense of “condition of neglect or oblivion, place of confinement” is from 1640s.
So the words ARE related—but only in the positional sense of both being at the edge of something (Hell, in the case of Catholic doctrine; the cerebral cortex—its own kind of hell, if you will—in the case of the limbic system). The emotional sense, of being lost in a place where nothing is happening, and therefore in a dully frustrated, affectless state, is this writer’s probably inadvertent inspiration. 
To add yet another etymological curlicue—it’s also left us on edge.
(For those on a roll, liminal (pertaining to a threshold) and limit are also related.)

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