From 'absurdity' to 'pneumonia', did you know these 'inkhorn' terms?

Many of these so-called inkhorn terms, such as dismiss, celebrate, encyclopedia, commit, capacity and absurdity stayed in the English language and are widely used today

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 2 May 2024, 5:55 PM

An “inkhorn term” is a word that is deemed to be unnecessary or overly pretentious. An inkhorn is an inkwell made of horn, and served as the container in which ink was stored. As such, it was an essential item for many scholars, and soon became symbolic of writers in general. The phrase “inkhorn term” came into English in the 16th century, as a term of gentlemanly abuse, referring to words which were being used by scholarly or pedantic writers but which were unknown in ordinary speech.

The objection to inkhorn terms was a reaction against the sudden increase in English vocabulary derived from classical sources which was taking place at this time, with writers experimenting with language, inventing terms from Latin, Greek and other languages to meet their needs, and thereby coming up with words that few understood. Though many of their creations and adaptations proved unsuccessful, being used once and soon forgotten — like “illecebrous” to mean alluring or attractive — large numbers of others have survived into the present day. Words as common today as ingenious, capacity, mundane, celebrate, extol, dexterity, illustrate, superiority, fertile, contemplate, confidence, frivolous, and even verbosity were once denounced as “inkhorn terms”.

Many of these so-called inkhorn terms, such as dismiss, celebrate, encyclopedia, commit, capacity and absurdity stayed in the English language and are widely used today. Many other neologisms faded soon after they were first used; for example, “expede” is now obsolete, although the synonym “expedite” and the antonym “impede” have survived. Why some new words survived while others faded or died out is a lexicological mystery to which there is no clear or satisfactory answer. Some were certainly awkward-sounding monstrosities that could never become anybody’s regular usage; others merely provided rather high-falutin’ alternatives to existing words, like “deruncinate”, meaning “to weed”, though it was not clear why anybody weeding his garden would prefer to describe himself as “deruncinating” instead. But there is real mystery to why some words survived and others did not: why, for instance, did “commit” and “transmit” become commonly-used, but the shorter “demit” be replaced by “dismiss”? Why did “impede” catch on but not “expede”? Why did “emacerate” get sidelined while “emaciate” flourished? And if “emacerate” sounded too pretentious, how did “emancipate” survive?

Although the “inkhorn controversy” was over by the end of the 17th century, the writers who disdained the use of Latinate words often could not avoid using other words loaned from non-English sources. In any case, many of the words coined in opposition to inkhorn terms did not remain in common use, while the supposedly pedantic words they sought to replace have lasted into the 21st century. A list of some of these words would prompt the modern English speaker to ask what the fuss was all about — why were these so objectionable? Here’s a selection of words derided as “inkhorn terms” that most of us use, or can and should use without pretension or embarrassment:

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, habitual, halo, harass, idiosyncrasy, immaturity, impersonal, jocular, larynx, lexicon, lunar, monopoly, monosyllable, necessitate, obstruction, pancreas, parenthesis, pathetic, pneumonia, relaxation, relevant, scheme, skeleton, soda, species, system, temperature, tendon, thermometer, transcribe, utopian, vacuum, virus.

In his 1623 eulogy to Shakespeare, playwright Ben Jonson praised the former’s literary accomplishments despite his having “small Latin and less Greek.” Jonson was writing when the “inkhorn controversy” was raging, but he was right to praise Shakespeare’s creativity in re-inventing the English language through linguistic innovations all his own. As the scholar Sara Schliep points out, Shakespeare turned nouns into verbs (grace, season), created compounds (fair-play, pell-mell), and added prefixes and suffixes to make new words (courtship, dauntless, disgraceful). His works were the first in which such words as ‘laughable,’ ‘eventful,’ ‘accommodation’ and ‘lack-lustre’ appeared. But as Schliep also notes, Shakespeare was far from alone in this lexical creativity. In fact, he was part of a trend in the 15th and 16th centuries that saw between 10,000 and 25,000 new words enter the English language. Inkhorns, in other words, were not just a bane for the language: they helped make it what it is today.

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