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Limitrophe

A young guest in the ancient and renowned Lexicophilia Club, who ought to know better, buttonholes the oldest member in the seclusion of the James Murray Memorial Library.

“Limitrophe. That looks foreign.”

“Your perspicacity astounds me. It was introduced from French by English members of the diplomatic corps in the eighteenth century, when — as you may know — French was the language of diplomacy.”

“So what did French diplomats mean by it?”

“Situated on the frontier; bordering another country. As a noun, border-land.”

“And where did the French get it?”

“From Latin ‘līmitrophus’, lands set apart for the support of troops on the frontier.”

“I don’t have any Latin. It’s all Greek to me.”

“Astonishing. You’re actually half right. The second part is indeed Greek (‘trophos’, supporting) but the first is from Latin ‘limes’, a limit or boundary.”

“That’s enough etymology, thanks.”

“Within these walls, young man, we can never have too much etymology.”

“I’ve never seen it before.”

“Why am I not surprised? But your observation is accidentally perspicacious. Unlike French, where it’s often to be encountered, it has always been rare in English.”

“Examples please.”

“Pass me Sir James Rennell Rodd’s Social and Diplomatic Memories, if you’d be so kind. Thank you. Grand man. First-class diplomat. Got his KCMG for sorting out that nasty Fashoda business in Africa in 1899. Here we are: “Countries limitrophe with Germany, such as Belgium, Holland, and perhaps Denmark”. And I can quote from a work by another diplomatist, Sir Charles Eliot. In his Hinduism and Buddhism — it appeared in 1921 in three volumes, absolutely splendid stuff, his life’s work, you know — he wrote: “In the reign of Mithridates the Parthian Empire was limitrophe with India and possibly his authority extended beyond the Indus”.”

“These are very old.”

“Not as old as all that, young man. But I take your point. It has always been rather a scarce word and it seems to have fallen even further out of favour during the past century.”

“So nobody uses it these days?”

“It’s still to be found if you would take the trouble to look. For example, ‘This belt of sovereign states is the Great Limitrophe: a kind of buffer zone separating Russia from the true centers of both European and Asian civilization’. That’s from Russia in Search of Itself, by James H Billington, published in 2004. And here’s another, from 2008: ‘This stretch of international boundary, which the Colorado River forms, is known as the limitrophe’. That’s in Ecosystem-based Management in the Colorado River Delta, whatever that means, by Karen Hae-Myung Hyun..”

“Why don’t we just say ‘border-land’ or ‘bordering’?”

“We would then lose an elegant word with which we can illuminate our discussions of political and economic geography.”

“Show off your obscure learning, you mean?”

“Impertinent whippersnapper! Enough! Away with you!”

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Sep. 2011

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 3 September 2011.