Small Latin and Less Greek: A Look at the Inkhorn Controversy

In his eulogy to Shakespeare published in the 1623 First Folio, fellow playwright Ben Jonson praises Shakespeare’s literary accomplishments despite his having “small Latine, and lesse Greeke.” While Shakespeare put to use what he did know of Latin and Greek in many of his plays and sonnets, he is better known today for his innovative use of the English language.

Shakespeare turned nouns into verbs (grace, season), created compounds (faire-play, pell-mell), and added prefixes and suffixes (courtship, dauntless, disgraceful). His works were the first to record such words as ‘laughable,’ ‘eventful,’ ‘accommodation’ and ‘lack-lustre’.

But Shakespeare was far from alone in this lexical creativity. In fact, he was part of an early modern trend that saw between 10,000 and 25,000 new words enter the English language in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.[1]

These words were directly borrowed from foreign languages—especially Latin and Greek legal, technical, and medical terms—or were newly coined (invented) by writers. Long, Latinate words used, or coined, by scholarly writers soon became known as “inkhorn terms” or “inkhornisms.”[2] They were viewed by many with scorn, taking on connotations of learned pedantry, and sparked what became known as the Inkhorn Controversy. (The term derives from the early ink containers made of animal horn and the notion that these lengthy words used up more ink than their shorter, Saxon-rooted English counterparts; compare the Latin conflagration and the English fire.)

The Inkhorn Controversy: Support and Opposition

Within the Inkhorn Controversy there were those who supported borrowings and coinages. These Neologizers believed such practices would enrich the English language, which during the Tudor period was considered ‘rude’ and ‘barbarous,’ lacking the appropriate words to express learned ideas.[3] Sir Thomas Elyot was an early Neologizer who, aware of the confusion a new word might cause, would pair it with a more familiar synonym or an explanation to aid readers’ understanding.

The boke named the Gouernour by Thomas Elyot.
Thomas Elyot. The boke named the Gouernour. 1531. STC 7635.

On the other side of the Inkhorn Controversy were the Purists who disparaged the abuse and excess to which many of the Neologizers had gone. Thomas Wilson made one of the earliest and well-known attacks on inkhorn terms in his Arte of Rhetorique (1553):

“Among all other lessons this should first be learned, that wee neuer affect and straunge ynkhorne termes, but to speak as is commonly received…Some seeke so far for outlandish English, that they forget altogether their mothers language. And I dare sweare this, if some of their mothers were aliue, thei were not able to tell what they say; and yet these find English clerkes will say, they speake in their mother tongue, if a man should charge them for counterfeiting the King’s English.”

Some Purists even went so far as to outright condemn foreign borrowings, such as Sir John Cheke, who in a 1557 letter to Thomas Hobby wrote: “I am of the opinion that our tung should be written cleane and pure, vnmixt and vnmangled with borowing of other tunges.” In order to avoid using borrowed terms, Purists of this strain invented their own compounds from Saxon words.

Ralph Lever did this for a number of Latin terms that were new to the English language in the early modern period in his Arte of reason, rightly termed, witcraft (1573). Along with the invention of ‘witcraft’ in the title for ‘reason’ or ‘logic,’ Lever also invented “forespeache” for the Latin “praefatio” (preface); “yeasay” and “naysay” for “affirmatio” and “negatio”; and “saywhat” for “definitio”, among others. Lever’s reasoning was that since many English words consisted of a single syllable, several could be joined together and would be relatively self-evident in meaning as opposed to the “inkhorn termes deriued of straunge and forain languages.”

The appeal of antiquity and “native” English purity was the motivation for many of the Archaizers (a subset of the Purists), who typically recommended archaic use in literature rather than general conversation. The preface to Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar (1579) includes a defense of archaic and obscure words, which Spenser used frequently in his works:

“And firste of the words to speake, I graunt they be something hard, and of most men vnused, yet both English, and also vsed of most excellent Authors and most famous Poetes…but whether he [our Poet, i.e., Spenser] vseth them by such casualtye and custome, or of set purpose and choyse,…or else because such olde and obsolete wordes are most vsed of country folke, sure I think, and think I think not amisse, that they bring great grace and, as one would say, auctoritie to the verse.”

The author of the preface also reveals a nationalist sentiment by noting that Spenser has “laboured to restore, as to theyr rightfull heritage such good and naturall English words, as have ben long time out of vse and almost cleane disinherited…[from] our Mother tongue.”

An open book showing the preface to a work by Edmund Spenser
Edmund Spenser. The shepheardes calender : conteyning tvvelue aeglogues proportionable to the twelue monethes. 1579. STC 23089

Playwrights and the Stage

In the 1590s and early 1600s, debate over the Inkhorn Controversy intensified, and focused on particular practices, such as the affected use of elevated language.

Shakespeare, in his play Love’s Labor’s Lost, mocked this affectation through the characters Holofernes (the pedant) and Nathaniel (the curate), who speak in a mix of not-always-correct Latin, English, and French. The play itself is filled with wordplay in the form of puns, metaphors, malapropisms, and corrupt and nonsensical Latin. It also contains the longest word in all of Shakespeare’s works: honorificabilitudinitatibus, which is spoken by the clown, Costard, (5.1.143).

Love's Labor's Lost quarto
1598 quarto of Love’s Labor’s Lost by William Shakespeare. STC 2224 copy 1.

In his commonplace book (published posthumously as Timber, or Discoveries made upon men and matter, as they have flowed out of his daily readings, or had their reflux to his peculiar notion of the times), Ben Jonson writes: “A man coins not a new word without some peril and less fruit; for if it happen to be received, the praise is but moderate; if refused, the scorn is assured.  Yet we must adventure; for things at first hard and rough are by use made tender and gentle.” He elaborates further:

“Custom is the most certain mistress of language, as the public stamp makes the current money.  But we must not be too frequent with the mint, every day coining, nor fetch words from the extreme and utmost ages; since the chief virtue of a style is perspicuity, and nothing so vicious in it as to need an interpreter. Words borrowed of antiquity do lend a kind of majesty to style, and are not without their delight sometimes; for they have the authority of years, and out of their intermission do win themselves a kind of grace like newness. But the eldest of the present, and newness of the past language, is the best. For what was the ancient language, which some men so dote upon, but the ancient custom?”

These opinions manifest on stage in several of Jonson’s works. Cynthia’s Revels (1600), includes an attack on “your ignorant poetasters of the time, who, when they have got acquainted with a strange word, never rest till they have wrung it in, though it loosen the whole fabric of the sense” (2.4.15-18). And in his 1601 Poetaster, Jonson attacks fellow dramatist John Marston, who was known for his elaborate neologizing, by portraying him as Crispinus, who vomits up bombastic and ridiculous words.

The First Dictionaries: Etymologies and Rivalries

By the mid-sixteenth century, the Inkhorn Controversy had been taken up by lexicographers who were compiling the first monolingual English dictionaries. The first few English dictionaries covered “hard words” (i.e., inkhornisms) that had newly entered the language and were difficult to understand.

In 1656, Thomas Blount published his Glossographia or A dictionary, interpreting all such hard vvords, whether Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Teutonick, Belgick, British or Saxon; as are now used in our refined English tongue. Designed to help readers’ “understand what they read,” Blount’s dictionary was the first to give both sources and etymologies for the words he included.

Two years later, Edward Phillips published The new world of English words: or, a general dictionary: containing the interpretations of such hard words as are derived from other languages; whether Hebrew, Arabick, Syriack, Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, British, Dutch, Saxon, &c. their etymologies and perfect definitions: together with all those terms that relate to the arts and sciences. Phillips plagiarized nearly half the definitions and the title for his work from Blount’s Glossographia.

The two published competing dictionaries for several decades and after the third edition of Phillips’ New World of Words, Blount had reached his limit. He published A World of Errors Discovered in the ‘New World of Words’ in 1673 as a direct attack on Phillips and his plagiarism. This was followed by Phillips’ fourth edition of New World of Words, which included “A Collection of such affected words from the Latin or Greek, as are either to be used warily, and upon occasion only, or totally to be rejected as Barbarous, and illegally compounded and derived; the most notorious of which last are noted with an Obelisk.”

a photograph of a page in a dictionary by Edward Phillips
From the fourth edition of New World of Words, published by Edward Phillips.

This list of inkhorn terms, purposefully offset from the main body of the dictionary, was almost entirely made up of words from Blount’s Glossographia. Among the inkhornisms Phillips cautions against using are flexiloquent (speaking so as to bend or incline the minds of others), honorificabilitudinitatibus (honourableness), libanomancy (divination by frankincense), opisthographical (having something written on the back), quinquipunctual  (having five points), and vulpinarity (a fox-like subtlety).

The reasons behind the rejection of certain words and forms is not always clear. According to David Crystal, a survey of Latinate vocabulary in early modern English found that “over a third of all neologisms which entered the language at that time are not recorded after 1700”.”[4] While impede and expede were introduced in early modern England, as were disabuse and disadorn, only the first of these pairs stuck around.[5] Other times, the existence of another word with similar meaning may have been the reason for rejection, as in the case of visible and aspectable.[6] English, however, maintained a variety of “lexical alternatives” such as ask / question / interrogate (of Germanic, French, and Latin origin, respectively), fast / firm / secure, holy / sacred / consecrated, and kingly / royal / regal.[7] Crystal notes that this “linguistic ‘survival of the fittest’…remains a lexicological puzzle.”[8]

By the end of the sixteenth century, the Inkhorn Controversy had dissipated. English had improved its lexical deficiencies through neologizing and was no longer viewed as an inferior language for compositions of any kind. However, arguments about what constitutes “proper” or “correct” usage still occur. And while the pace of change may have slowed, the English language has continued to grow, change, and absorb words, but arguably nothing before or since has matched the inventiveness of early modern authors, who were some of the most “lexically creative…in English literature.”[9]


[1] Paula Blank. Broken English: Dialects and the Politics of Language in Renaissance Writings (New York: Routledge, 1996), 18.

[2] “Ink-horn term” is first attested in 1543 (“ˈink-horn, n.”. OED Online. March 2019. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/96130?redirectedFrom=ink-horn+term) and “Inkhornism” first appears in 1597 (“ˈinkhornism, n.”. OED Online. March 2019. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/96131).

[3] Charles Barber, Early Modern English (London: W&J Mackay Limited, Chatham, 1976), 72.

[4] David Crystal, The Stories of English (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2004), 293.

[5] Ibid, 293.

[6] Ibid, 293.

[7] Ibid, 188.

[8] Ibid, 293.

[9] Ibid, 306.

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