AskDefine | Define inkhorn

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. (especially regarding a vocabulary item) excessively scholarly, pedantic, obscure.

Extensive Definition

An inkhorn is an inkwell made out of horn. It was an important item for many scholars and soon became symbolic of writers in general. Later it became a byword for fussy or pedantic writers.
And ere that we will suffer such a prince,
So kind a father of the commonweal,
To be disgraced by an inkhorn mate,
Henry VI, Part 1, William Shakespeare
An inkhorn term is any foreign borrowing (or a word created from existing word roots by an English speaker) into English deemed to be unnecessary or overly pretentious, usually from Latin. Controversy over inkhorn terms was rife between the mid-16th to the mid-17th centuries; at the time of the transition between Middle English and Modern English. It was also a time when English was replacing Latin as the main language of science and learning in England, although French was still prevalent. Many new words were being introduced into the language by writers, often self-consciously borrowing from Classical literature. Critics regarded these words as useless, usually requiring knowledge of Latin or Greek to be understood. They also contended that there were words with identical meaning already in English. Some of the terms did indeed seem to fill a semantic gap in English (often technical and scientific words) whereas others coexisted with native (Germanic) words with the same or similar meanings and often supplanted them.
Writers such as Thomas Elyot and George Pettie were enthusiastic borrowers of new words whereas Thomas Wilson and John Cheke argued against them. Many of these so-called inkhorn terms, such as dismiss, celebrate, encyclopedia, commit, capacity and ingenious stayed in the language and are commonly used. Many other neologisms faded soon after they were first used; for example expede which is now all but obsolete although the similar word impede survived. Faced with the influx of these new words from foreign languages, some writers either tried to deliberately resurrect older English words (gleeman for musician, sicker for certainly, inwit for conscience, yblent for confused) or create wholly new words from Germanic roots (endsay for conclusion, yeartide for anniversary, foresayer for prophet).
Few of these words created in opposition to inkhorn terms remained in common usage and the writers who disdained the use of Latinate words often could not avoid using other words of foreign origin. Although the inkhorn controversy was over by the end of the 17th century many writers have attempted to return to what they saw as the purer roots of the language. William Barnes created a whole lexicon of words such as starlore for astronomy and speechcraft for grammar but his words were not widely accepted.
Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.
George Orwell, Politics and the English Language
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