Monday, February 15, 2016

The Inkhorn Controversy

The "Inkhorn controversy" is the name generally given to the extended dispute, largely in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, over whether English should continue to add words from Latin and Greek -- regarded by their fans as ornaments, by their detractors as moldy old things that came from an "inkhorn" (a reservoir of ink made from bone and worn about the neck of lawyers and clerks) rather from what they regarded as the good, wholesome, Saxon-rooted world of "native" English words.

The difference can be seen at once in the texts on both sides of this question, as well as in the alternative words set forth by those who opposed such "Aureate" language. If they had had their way, then instead of "resurrection" we might have had "gainrising," "crossed" for "crucified," and "ground-wrought" for "founded." Indeed, in German we can see how many such compounds might sound; their word for television, fernsehen, would be in English a "Far-Seer"; their word for refrigerator, k├╝hlschrank, would give us "Cold-Cupboard"; their word for odometer, entfernungsmesser, would come out as "Range blade." We do in fact have quite a few words made the old Saxon way: wayfarer, toolbox, sunscreen, or shoehorn for example -- but when it comes to technical, legal, and medical terms, Latin and Greek lead the way with thermometer, telephone, computer, seismograph, macrosomia, hydroencephaly, psychoanalysis, and cyberspace.

So it's noteworthy that the vast majority of words despised by the anti-Inkhorn crew are still with us, among them ability, atmosphere, autograph, anonymous. capsule, crisis, democracy, dedicate, dogma, emphasis, ostracize, and education (for ex-ductere, 'to lead forth) and thousands of others. The list of rejected terms is far shorter, and often we do in fact have a similarly-formed word:

adnichilate - we use 'annihilate' (to reduce to zero, or 'nihil')


anacephalize - to recapitulate (here Latin proved stronger than Greek)

expede - `to accomplish' (we still have its opposite, impede)

fatigate: to fatigue

obtestate - to bear witness, call upon as witness

suppeditate - `to supply', `furnish' (though we have kept supplement, both as verb and noun)

temulent - `drunk' (though we do have temerity)

unpossible - today we prefer 'impossible'