Linguistics: Inkhorn Terms

Inkhorn Terms

linguisticswordlelargeAmidst the ever-changing cultural developments and innovations that characterized the Renaissance period, the English language saw a rich influx of pomposity and refinement in what concerned prose, made possible by dexterous writers who embellished their discourse, more often than not, by meticulously selecting, borrowing and adapting words from other languages (most notably Latin and Greek). In any case, detractors of this new, overly elegant prosaic style considered that the excess of flourish was detrimental to communication.

Nevertheless, as we can now observe from the works of widely acclaimed authors of the likes of William Shakespeare or Philip Sidney, the style that reigned during this period is, to the date, regarded by many critics as one of the most flowery and elegant in the history of English prose; yet, at the time, the employment of these words generated a great deal of controversy and intellectual debate.

Samuel Johnson, perhaps most remembered for compiling one of the most popular (if not the most popular) English dictionaries of his era, asserted that speech could indeed be utilized in ways whose implicatures would reach beyond those of mere communication. Instead, language could also be used to enrich and embellish speech. Naturally, this quest for enriching everyday speech had many detractors as well as supporters.

This copious flood of inkhorn terms, which had its peak between the years 1590 and 1660, prompted many purists to make efforts to counteract the trend that seemed to be rapidly spreading among English speakers, particularly (if not exclusively) those highly educated or well-traveled. Notable scholars of the time, such as Ralph Lever (1573), suggested that, when in need of coining new words, the new terms should instead resemble or be composed of already-existing vernacular English terms. Therefore, he attempted to impose words such as foresay (premise), endsay (conclusion), saywhat (definition), witcraft (logic) and yeasay (affirmation) and naysay (negation).