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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. It was also a time when English was in contest with Latin as the main language of science and learning in England, having already displaced French. 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. The phrase "inkhorn term" appeared as early as 1553.
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 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 synonymic derivative expedite and the similar word impede survive. Faced with the influx of these new words from foreign languages, some writers tried to either resurrect older English words (gleeman for musician – see glee, 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.
George Orwell famously analysed and criticised the socio-political impact of the usage 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
- (227) A Biography of the English Language, 2nd. Ed. C.M. Millward
- 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
- "Early modern English - an overview". Oxford English Dictionary.