To be frank, 'liminal' is one of those words I've just skipped over in the past. I suppose some people hear it in everyday speech--I can't say it's ever come up in mine. When I come across the word 'liminal', it usually means I've inadvertantly wandered into the world of academic writing. Liminal is the kind of word that has been taken up as a sort of jargon among academic professionals, and for better or worse, I tend to tune out this kind of stuff.
But liminal is a perfectly good word, and reading it in my copy of Down These Green Streets the other day made me wonder about it a little. True, the word 'liminality' was used by a professor, namely one Ian Campbell Ross, who wrote the introduction for the book, but he at least has the grace to define it as he goes, as an indeterminate state of being. He's speaking specifically of the novels of Brian McGilloway, which operate in both a literal and metaphorical borderland. (And let me add that neither Ross nor the other writers I've sampled in the book are guilty of much acadamese. It's a highly readable collection.)
But where does this word come from? Is it related to 'limit', or to what exactly? And if it's good enough for academics to toss off every now and again, why can't we find more uses for it in daily speech?
I just now realized as wrote this, that 'subliminal' has got to be related, and we use that one all the time. Or at least more.
I've commented elsewhere recently that a little Latin wouldn't go amiss around these parts. If I'd had some, no doubt I would have recognized that 'limin-' as going back to the Latin limin, which means threshold. English speakers might be a bit more familiar with the word 'lintel' which, also means threshold. It gets a bit confusing over at the old Online Etymology dictionary, because it seems like lintel derives from the Vulgar latin 'limitaris' or threshold, which goes back to Latin limitaris, which is an adjective meaning 'that is on the border' while liminal comes straight from the old Latin limen, but they seem to cross over and influence each other anyway. Quite appropriate for threshold words, I'd say.
Anyway, though subliminal and liminal are related through their history, they don't really relate in current usage. Subliminal in our present sense means something like 'below the threshold of awareness'. It seems to have been coined or at least translated from a coinage back in 1886 by a German psychologist named Hebert, but became popularized in 1957, when people learned about the perils of subliminal advertising. (A book called Subliminal Seduction, complete with illustrations of scary things advertisers were putting in their ads was still around when I was in college.)
But liminality has another and rather specific source. It was coined in 1884, but the Online Dictionary has it as a rare word. It's comtemporary usage all stems from the work of Victor Turner in anthropology at the University of Chicago in the sixties. Without getting that deeply into it, the liminal state is what Turner terms the stage of the rite of passage between childhood and adulthood. In more traditional societies, it is made a part of the initiation ceremony, but Turner apparently also saw a certain liminal quality to the Hippie revolution that was going on at the time. Even he titled one of his books Betwixt and Between, and left liminal to hang out in the subtitle, which seems like a good idea to me.
In short, liminal is a part of academic speech and not the popular lingo because it never really escaped the confines of the university. Maybe some of us should take it out for a good walk every now and then. Introduce it to the neighborhood.