plain English

The fashion for inkhorn terms

Macmillan Dictionary’s discussion of plain English continues in the New Year, and though we cannot expect a year in which clear and meaningful language entirely replaces vague and convoluted language, it remains something to aim at for those of us concerned with good communication.

In its Golden Bull awards last month, the Plain English Campaign drew attention to an example of what it called “Episcopal legalese”:



AND WHEREAS We have consented to the said period being so brought to an end and to the exercise of such right of presentation NOW WE HEREBY DECLARE that the said period shall come to an end on the date hereof …

It’s from a bishop writing to his parishioners, and apparently its meaning is quite straightforward. Hardly anyone writes like this anymore, though, and for good reason. To modern eyes and ears its verbosity borders on indecipherable unless you’re accustomed to legal writing or archaic prose.

If the main purpose of language is communication, why does it so easily go awry? In a thought-provoking post about why people use “jargon (bad) as opposed to terminology (good)”, Michael Rundell finds that fashion and the desire to convey importance or complexity are significant factors. And styles become habits, regardless of how effective they are.

The ornate style of writing was once in fashion. It combined elaborate syntax with a multitude of rhetorical devices and what became known as “inkhorn terms”. An inkhorn is an inkwell made of horn, and inkhorn term is what Michael Quinion calls “a term of gentlemanly abuse” that was applied to fancy words borrowed from classical languages during the gradual shift from Middle to Modern English.

In this period, a great many words were imported from such languages as French, Greek, and especially Latin. A lot of these words were technical or literary, and inevitably there was criticism of the inflated style that some writers adopted in seeming deference to their beloved Latin. In The Story of Language, C. L. Barber writes that in early Modern English “the trickle of Latin loans becomes a river, and by 1600 it is a deluge”.

But many Latin and Latinate loans that were attacked as inkhorn terms gradually slipped into the standard vocabulary and are now thoroughly integrated into English: celebrate, frivolous, hereditary, ingenious, reciprocal, relinquish, and strenuous, to name a few. Others failed to catch on: fatigate, furibund, oblatrant, and turgidous.

We can imagine an alternate scenario in which the survivors – celebrate and co. – were the ones that became “exolete” (obsolete), and the inkhorn terms like furibund that now appear strange and amusing lived on in our regular speech. One generation’s grotesquery is another’s normal expression: there’s no predicting the ultimate fate of a lexical borrowing, or any other verbal innovation.

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Stan Carey

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