Daily Archives: February 6, 2014


This is a word that lumbers, or has at best a combo sound, somewhere between nimble and bimbo. And yet if you look closely you may find that it borders on something sublime. It may not seem an edgy word, but it is imbued with a limber liminality.

Come, come see what I’m talking about. Look into my eye. Or yours, in a mirror. Or your lover’s. The pupil is the core, the trunk. Around it is the iris, like so many limbs. Or it may be a head, and the iris a halo – a nimbus. Do you see the line where the iris meets the white? This is the limbus.

To be more accurate, the limbus is the border between the cornea and the sclera (the sclera is the white, and the cornea is the front of the lens). It is a ring, and on some people there is a pronounced darker band at the edge of the iris – a limbal ring, a youthful mark often imitated in coloured contacts. But that is not all a limbus is.

No, think of the eye as a volcano, about to erupt: a limbus is also the edge of a volcano crater. Drink deep of the eye and be intoxicated: the limbus is the rim of a wine-bowl. Or is that iris the beautiful fluttering petal of a flower? Its edge is, again, a limbus.

Limbus is Latin for ‘border, edge, fringe’, you see. It has gained these English uses from that. But the Latin word also has an inflected form that has become a word in English: limbo, that border region of hell, where the innocent unbaptized are (so it has been said) sent – little babies taken too soon. Not condemned to eternal damnation, but not allowed into eternal bliss; simply held in between forever by words unspoken. Like a look into an eye that does not reveal what lies behind: is it rejection or acceptance, volcanic fury or intoxicating bliss, halo or ring of fire? It is forever unanswering. Can you, trapped by the limbal ring, dance a limbo and pass underneath it?


Amy Toffelmire has brought to my attention a post on the Paris Review Daily blog containing the sentence, “Japanese scrolls from the Edo period depict—yes—erumpent, competitive flatulence.”

Erumpent. What a word! Truly le mot juste here, and would we expect any less of the Paris Review? (No, we would not.) It somehow has a sound simultaneously of trumpet and harrumph, with clear notes of erupt and rampant and a toasty little taste of crumpet. And, of course, rump.

So what, exactly, does erumpent mean? We will not need a lexical umpire to resolve this. It is a little-used word and holds true to its Latin roots. The e is the same as in evocative and e pluribus unum; it means ‘out of’. And the rump, of course, does not mean ‘rump’. No no no. Rump is a Germanic word, and this is Latin. In Latin, rumpere means (or meant) ‘burst forth’. In fact, the Latin erumpere, which produced the present participle erumpentem – the source of this word – also produced the past participle eruptus, which gave us our English erupt.

So something that that is erupting could be said to be erumpent. But, really, if you’ve just messily fired off the cork of a bottle of champagne and it’s hosing all over your drapery, would you choose the word erumpent for it? Would it matter how much you paid for the champagne? Or is this word simply too dominated by its sound associations to be fit for anything finer than flatulence?