Betwixt and Between: Why ‘liminal’ is a silly and amazing word in Classics

Here is a quote from the introduction of my MA thesis:

Throughout this thesis I have used the term ‘liminal’ with a very specific meaning.  Though the term has taken on a large array of meanings, both within classical scholarship and elsewhere, its original meaning – as coined by Victor Turner in the context of initiation and transition rites – denotes ‘a realm… betwixt and between… any type of stable or recurrent condition that is culturally recognised.’[1]  That is to say that the liminal space is defined by what it does not encompass, which are stable states or conditions that are recognised as such.

I bring this up because I’ve had a few recent conversations which have revolved around the term ‘liminal’ and what it means, or should me.  I always use the term liminal in the above context.  To me, that is what ‘liminal’ means and what liminality is.  I know that not everyone uses it in this specific context and, because of that, the term has become a bit of a pseudo-theoretical buzzword that ‘makes me sound really smart!’

By the way, it doesn’t.  Using a word incorrectly makes you look anything but smart.

I recently went back to liminality and liminal positions when looking into rites-of-passage for my PhD.  Now I’m much more likely to use the term ‘transitory’ because I think it’s much easier to understand.  I have grown up enough to not care about sounding smart and just wanting the reader to understand – without any possible ambiguity – what my argument is.
But, it did get me thinking about the poor old harbour:  liminality comes from Latin though Greek.  The Greek word for harbour is λιμήν, which turns into a threshold in Latin’s limen.  It’s related to the English ‘limit,’ as in there are a limited number of correct usages for the English word ‘liminal.’

Learn what it means or, better yet, don’t use it.


[1] V. Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967), 93-94.

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