Inkhorn term

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Inkhorn with ivory case (Prague, 9th-13th century) Inkhorn and ivory case, 9th-13th c, exh. Benedictines NG Prague, 150683.jpg
Inkhorn with ivory case (Prague, 9th–13th century)

An inkhorn term is a loanword, or a word coined from existing roots, which is deemed to be unnecessary or over-pretentious.



An inkhorn is an inkwell made of horn. It was an important item for many scholars, which soon became symbolic of writers in general. Later, it became a byword for fussy or pedantic writers. The phrase "inkhorn term" is found as early as 1553. [1]

And ere that we will suffer such a prince,
So kind a father of the commonweal,
To be disgracèd by an inkhorn mate


Controversy over inkhorn terms was rife from the mid-16th to the mid-17th century, during the transition from Middle English to Modern English, when English competed with Latin as the main language of science and learning in England, having just displaced French. [2] Many words, often self-consciously borrowed from classical literature, were deemed useless by critics who argued that the understanding of these redundant borrowings depends on knowledge of classical languages. Some borrowings filled a technical or scientific semantic gap, but others coexisted with Germanic words, often overtaking them.

Writers such as Thomas Elyot and George Pettie were enthusiastic borrowers whereas Thomas Wilson and John Cheke opposed borrowing. [3] Cheke wrote:

I am of this opinion that our own tung should be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borowing of other tunges; wherein if we take not heed by tiim, ever borowing and never paying, she shall be fain to keep her house as bankrupt.

Many of these so-called inkhorn terms, such as dismiss, celebrate, encyclopedia, commit, capacity and ingenious, stayed in the language. Many other neologisms faded soon after they were first used; for example, expede is now obsolete, although the synonym expedite and the similar word impede survive. Faced with the influx of loanwords, writers as well known as Charles Dickens tried to either resurrect English words, e.g. gleeman for musician (see glee), sicker for certainly, inwit for conscience, yblent for confused; or coin brand-new words from English's Germanic roots (endsay for conclusion, yeartide for anniversary, foresayer for prophet).


Few of these words coined 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 loanwords. Although the inkhorn controversy was over by the end of the 17th century, many writers sought to return to what they saw as the purer roots of the language. William Barnes coined words, such as starlore for astronomy and speechcraft for grammar, but they were not widely accepted.

George Orwell famously analysed and criticised the socio-political effects of the use of such words:

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 opposite numbers.

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

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  1. Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique, 1553: "Among all other lessons this should first be learned, that wee neuer affect any straunge ynkehorne termes, but to speake as is commonly receiued:" (modernized spelling: "Among all other lessons this should first be learned, that we never affect any strange inkhorn terms, but to speak as is commonly received:"),Original texts from the inkhorn debate
  2. (227) A Biography of the English Language, 2nd. Ed. C.M. Millward
  3. "Early modern English – an overview". Oxford English Dictionary. 16 August 2012.

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