Monthly Archives: January 2001

Thresholding

What does a debutante mean when she says, “Simply sublime, dahling”? And what does that have to do with subliminal messages? Why does “sublime” mean “elevated,” while “subliminal” implies “beneath”? “Sub” means “under, below, beneath, down” [AHD]. To “sub lime” should mean “to sit beneath the shade of a citrus tree.” That, of course, would be wrong—unless you’re a punster.

It turns out that sublime and subliminal both have to do with the “lintel,” Latin limen. The lintel is the beam that forms the upper part of a window or door, and supports part of the structure above it [AHD]. This lintel is thus a threshold; we get the word “limen” to mean the “threshold of a physiological or psychological response” [AHD]. “Sub” + “limen” gives us, in various forms, words that mean passing under, through, and over a metaphorical threshold. 1. Continue reading