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Inkhorn terms

Some time ago, during a discussion on alt.usage.english about inventive spelling and obsolete words, I happened to use the phrase inkhorn term in one of my messages, which immediately caused a small flurry of “Er, what?” responses from other people.

The phrase “inkhorn term” came into English in the early to middle sixteenth century, with the first attested usage dating from 1543. It was from the outset a term of gentlemanly abuse, referring to words which were being used by scholarly writers but which were unknown or uncommon in ordinary speech. (The word derives from the then standard name for the container in which ink was stored, originally made from a real horn; later, when this term had itself become obsolete, it was sometimes rendered as inkpot term). Thomas Wilson wrote this in fine fulminating mood in 1553, in his Arte of Rhetorique:

Among all other lessons this should first be learned, that wee never affect any straunge ynkehorne termes, but to speake as is commonly received: neither seeking to be over fine or yet living over-carelesse, using our speeche as most men doe, and ordering our wittes as the fewest have done. Some seeke so far for outlandish English, that they forget altogether their mothers language. And I dare sweare this, if some of their mothers were alive, thei were not able to tell what they say: and yet these fine English clerkes will say, they speake in their mother tongue, if a man should charge them for counterfeiting the Kings English.

Many of these inkhorn coinages were used only once and gained no currency at all among other writers. Others gained some brief acceptance but then vanished again. Some examples of words which never made it into the modern language:

The objection to inkhorn terms was a largely irrational and emotive reaction by conservatives against the sudden increase in English vocabulary derived from classical sources which was taking place at this time. Writers were experimenting with the language, importing and inventing terms to meet their needs, basing most of them on Latin, with some from Greek and other languages. Though many of their inventions and adaptations proved unsuccessful, large numbers of others which linguistic Canutes like Wilson objected to did gain a permanent place and are still in use today. Thomas Wilson illustrated his argument through an letter (assumed invented) from a Lincolnshire man to the Lord Chancellor which he felt contained many words which would be strange and obscure to the ordinary reader. These are the examples in that letter which have defied his censure and for which we would be the poorer if he had prevailed (I’ve modernised the spellings):

ingenious, capacity, mundane, celebrate, extol, dexterity, illustrate, superiority, fertile, contemplate, invigilate, pastoral, confidence, compendious, relinquish, frivolous, verbosity.

Why some new words survived while others languished or died out is a question nobody seems able to answer. Some were certainly jaw-breaking monstrosities that could never become anybody’s favourite words; others merely provided elevated alternatives to existing words, like deruncinate, “to weed”, but these could hardly be the only causes of words being shunned. Else why would commit and transmit become common, but the shorter demit be replaced by dismiss? Why did impede catch on but not expede? Why did emacerate lose out to emaciate but emancipate survive?

Whatever the reason for success or failure of new words, this extraordinary period of inventiveness and adaptation enriched English with many hundreds of new terms. Here are a few more derived from Latin and Greek that came in during the Renaissance:

absurdity, adapt, agile, alienate, anachronism, anonymous, appropriate, assassinate, atmosphere, autograph, benefit, capsule, catastrophe, chaos, climax, conspicuous, contradictory, crisis, criterion, critic, disability, disrespect, emphasis, encyclopaedia, enthusiasm, epilepsy, eradicate, exact, excavate, excursion, exist, expectation, expensive, explain, external, extinguish, fact, glottis, habitual, halo, harass, idiosyncrasy, immaturity, impersonal, inclemency, jocular, larynx, lexicon, lunar, monopoly. monosyllable, necessitate, obstruction, pancreas, parenthesis, pathetic, pneumonia, relaxation, relevant, scheme, skeleton, soda, species, system, temperature, tendon, thermometer, tibia, transcribe, ulna, utopian, vacuum, virus.

Page created 21 Jun. 1996

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Last modified: 21 June 1996.