September 28, 2010

Words of the Month - The Inkhorn Controversy

        These days native speakers of English have a tendency to be a bit arrogant concerning foreign languages, thinking we don't need to learn other languages because everyone else will learn ours.  But it was not always so.  Until the end of the sixteenth century English had a serious inferiority complex.  Speakers of English considered their language to be rude and uncouth compared with the other European languages, especially French and Latin.  A representative comment is that made by a translator in 1563 on "our own corrupt and base, or as al men affirm it: most barbarous language."  Translators almost invariably apologized for transforming the eloquence of Greek or Latin into the unworthy English, but nevertheless, they continued to use the vernacular.  They claimed that they needed to educate those who were unable to read the classics in the original.  This meant that, despite continuing charges of barbarism, English was being used for scholarly works.  And that practice led directly to a change in attitude about English that took place toward the end of the sixteenth century.  In order to translate the classics and say all that seemed to need saying, English had to have more words, and the choice of new words was the root of a magnificent linguistic controversy.
        Many translators borrowed huge numbers of words from their sources when they couldn't find appropriate English words.  Many writers in English made up new words with reckless abandon.  Other scholars argued against the neologisms as obscure, pretentious, and affected.  The "Inkhorn Controversy" was not concerned with the necessity of new terms in English - that was never denied.  But although Latinisms were accepted when they were required for meaning, many writers deplored the indiscriminate use of outrageous neologisms to make a more learned-sounding style.  (Purple patches, anyone?)  Sometimes the borrowings defeated the entire purpose of translation, since they made the English as difficult to understand as the original.  However, towards the end of the century there was an abrupt turnaround in attitude toward English, and suddenly the flood of new words had had an effect: English was the language of eloquence.
        Here are a few of the many, many weird and wonderful new words that first appeared in English as Inkhorn terms.

absterge – (1541) to wipe away, to cleanse
accerse – (1548) to summon, to be sent for
anonymous – (1601)
antique – (1540)
catastrophe – (1579) the change or revolution which produces the conclusion
     or final event of a dramatic piece; (1601 for the current sense)
commentitial – (1611) fictitious
contemplate – (1590’s)
deruncinate – (1656) to cut off that which is superfluous, to weed
detail – (c.1600)
encyclopedia – (1531) the circle of learning (This one's interesting because the p
     really doesn't belong there.  It's derived from a false reading of the Greek term
     encyclical, as in a well-rounded education); (1644 for the current sense)
enthusiasm – (1579) possession by a god, supernatural inspiration;
     (but not until 1716 for the current sense)
exaggerate – (1533) to pile up; (c.1564 for the current sense)
illecebrous – (1531) alluring, enticing, attractive
impecunious – (1590-1600)
intermure – (1606) to enclose between walls
irrefringible – (1596) incapable of being broken down or demolished
lucubration – (1585-1595) laborious work or study, especially at night
nullifidian – (1564) atheist
oscitancy – (1619) drowsiness, as manifested by yawning
pathetic – (1598) (first spelled pathetique)
peccable – (c.1600, probably earlier) capable of sinning
precipice – (1590-1600)
skeleton – (1578)
spendidious – (1560) (one of several variants at the time, of which the one that
     is accepted nowadays is splendid)
tenacious – (1600)
timid – (1549)
tranquil – (1595-1604)

        It's a complete mystery why some of these words were accepted into common speech and are words in good standing to this day, while others never caught on, or enjoyed only a brief popularity, and seem utterly ridiculous now.  If you roll them around in your mouth a bit, you really have to admit that anonymous is every bit as implausible as irrefringible, while it's hard to imagine that timid was criticized as an obscure and pretentious neologism.  As for peccable, it's just plain silly that it should have died while impeccable still lives.   So don't try to question the mysterious ways of a living, breathing language.  Just contemplate with enthusiasm the sixteenth and early seventeenth century writers who gave us such spendidious words.

        (A word on dates - There's no way of knowing when a word was first spoken, and while scholars can try to find an earliest written use of a word, you never know when there were earlier examples that no one's found.  The OED and various other etymological dictionaries don't always agree on dates, either.  So I've given what I hope is a reasonable approximation of a first appearance in English for each of the words listed.)

[Picture: David's Inkwell, wood block print by AEGN, 2000 (Commissioned as an illustration for Resistance and Obedience to God: Memoirs of David Ferris, ed. Martha Paxson Grundy, Friends General Conference, 2001.)]


  1. Thanks for this fascinating tour through some of the more obscure (and not so obscure) English words. I am sure you could have gone on forever. Now, could you please tell us why it is called the Inkhorn Controversy? That one escaped me.
    -- Aging wordsmith

  2. Thanks for asking! "Inkhorn" is another word for inkwell, and was used as a term of disparagement - a reference to those fancy-schmancy scholars with their fancy-schmancy Latin words that plain English-speaking folks couldn't possibly be expected to understand. When a word was called an "inkhorn term" the implication was that it was made up by some ink-splattered scholar who was no doubt out of touch with decent ordinary English. The funny thing about the phrase is that the same writers who were making up these wonderfully obscure words were all calling everyone else's neologisms "Inkhorn Words," while they all thought their own new words were perfectly reasonable.

  3. And then along came Shakespeare and all the other late Elizabethan and early Stuart poets and playwrights who were intoxicated with the English language and delighted in inventing new words and combinations of words, stringing them together with word plays, anagrams, poetry, and prose. They still delight us.

  4. Anne, have you read Patrick O'Brian's Jack Aubrey historical novels? Such a delight of wonderful lost words and phrases. I think you would enjoy them--perhaps when you have a little more time than 8 year olds provide.

  5. No, I haven't, Nan. Thanks for the tip - I'll check them out.