Liminal and subliminal

It occurred to me for the first time this morning that the words liminal and subliminal must be related, just after reading an article by Vicki Boykis that discusses liminal spaces.

I hear the two words in such in different contexts—architecture versus psychology—and hadn’t thought about the connection until now. If I were playing a word association game, my responses would be these.

Q: Liminal?

A: Spaces.

Q: Subliminal?

A: Message.


I checked Etymonline to verify that the two words are indeed cognate. Both come from the Latin word limen for threshold. Something is subliminal if it is below the threshold, typically the threshold of consciousness.


Surely the word subliminal is far more common than liminal. To verify this, I turned to Google’s Ngram Viewer. I’ve included a screenshot below, and you can find the original here.

Ngram of liminal vs subliminal

It’s not surprising that subliminal was a popular term during the career of Sigmund Freud. He published The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899 and died in 1939.

What is surprising, at least to me, is that the word liminal has been gaining popularity and passed subliminal around the turn of the century. I didn’t expect liminal to be anywhere near as common as subliminal.


Google’s Ngram data comes from books. Word frequencies in books can be very different than word frequencies in common speech or other writing as this example shows. I can’t recall ever hearing someone use liminal in conversation. Maybe civil engineers and architects hear it all the time. As I type this, my spell checker puts a red squiggly line under every instance of liminal, showing that the word is not in its default dictionary, though it does recognize subliminal.

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11 thoughts on “Liminal and subliminal

  1. yes, this certainly seems hard to believe (that “liminal” is close to “subliminal” in usage, even just in books), and not the first time Google ngram results have seemed unlikely. Will be interested to see if anyone has an explanation in this instance (was there possibly some area of popular culture where the term got used after 1980?).

  2. Michael Hannon

    Interesting. I had the same epiphany (liminal subliminal) after hearing somebody use the term “liminal” repeatedly a couple of days ago. I guess I’ve been hanging out with the wrong crowd. Also mildly interesting: Firefox flags “liminal” as a spelling error, despite its alleged popularity.

  3. Correction: there is no Latin word limis. Liminal and subliminal come from the word limen (meaning threshold, or more literally the bottom of a doorway), which is why that -in- element is in there.

  4. (My earlier similar comment doesn’t appear to have gone through.)

    Correction: there is no Latin word “limis”. Liminal and subliminal derive from Latin “limen” (meaning threshold, or more literally the bottom of a doorway).

  5. Search the “liminal” and ask for images. Some interesting diagrams, right on the limen themselves, of profound and silly.

  6. Hi there. I am a psychiatrist with training in Jungian analysis. The uptick of the use of the word “liminal” since the mid-20th century makes sense to me. This corresponds to the the increased popularity and development of Jungian thinking. I had never heard the word liminal before I did Jungian training. They talk a lot about crossing thresholds of consciousness — liminal spaces and psychological boundaries are often represented in dream symbols like crossing the border into another country, or going through a customs check. Of note, Jungian Psychology never gained a huge foothold in mainstream psychiatry. You may find it more in the literature on cultural anthropology or comparative religion.

  7. I looked liminal up after seeing it used three or four times in the last month. I asked my wife what it meant. She knew right away, and said she’d never heard it before doing a Masters of Fine Arts in theatre two years ago. Which explains everything. It’s one of those Critical Theory words that sounds good and means nothing.

  8. I’m trying to get a grasp on this idea. I’ve wondered if liminal might describe a fluid moment of existing between possible outcomes.

  9. People are obviously looking up liminal because they don’t know what it means (compared to subliminal which is relatively common). At least, that’s what I did!

  10. That would account for some of the traffic. But people are looking up the definition for a reason, i.e. they’re reading it somewhere, so the word must also be in use.

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