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Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique

I will be teaching the History of the English Language this spring (o frabjous day!), and have been updating the timelines (one for Indo-European and archaic languages, a second for English) that I’ve written to use in the classroom. Here, and in the next post, are two new entries.

Thomas Wilson’s 1553 text has become a classic argument against the 16th-century trend of amplifying the English lexicon with Englished versions of Latin and Greek words–so called “inkhorn terms.” The relevant section of his book begins here. As with the slightly later trend to regularize English spelling (see the entries under Mulcaster and Bullokar), the key reason for this is anxiety about the influence of the ancient, elite models of Greek and Latin. Writers wanted to transform English–now, after the reformation, the official language of the state and church–into a language worthy enough to rival the literacy that they represented.

Scholars who argued for borrowing (including Thomas Elyot and George Pettie) and those who argued against it (also including John Cheke) all desired to elevate the literary status of English. The differences lie in method. Those who argued for borrowing saw Latin and Greek as models that might help English to advance. Those against inkhorn terms argued that “our tung should be written clene and pure, vnmixt and vnmangeled with borowing of other tunges,” as Cheke said (qtd. on Crystal 61). One side venerated the classics; the other the “purity” of their own vernacular. Both arguments beg for modern analyses of their respective educational ideologies.

Shakespeare used many inkhorn terms unselfconsciously, including many that don’t survive: note “exsufflicate” (Othello 3.3.186), or two words in the line this my hand will rather / the multitudinous seas incarnadine (Macbeth 2.2.59-60). He also mocked pretension in characters such as Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing who try and fail to speak in elevated terms: “Marry, sir, I would have some confidence [conference] with you that decerns [concerns] you nearly” (3.5.2-3); “Comparisons are odorous” (3.5.14); “Is our whole dissembly appeared?” (4.2.1). Other examples of this mockery include his Holofernes in Love’s Labours Lost, Ben Jonson’s character Crispinus in his 1601 Poetaster (in 5.3, he vomits up a number of words into a basin), and the famous Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals.

While many of these coinages are easy to laugh at (splendidious? adnichilate? temulent?–look up that one), many of these terms survive, indicating that they filled some kind of lexical void. Crystal gives good list on CEEL 60 that includes adapt, immaturity, and transcribe, all from Latin roots. The word vernacular itself, that first appears around 1600, is an inkhorn term. Taken from the Latin verna, meaning a “home-born” (as opposed to an imported) slave, its first use refers to the dialect of a specific place. A contemporary word that did not survive is vernile, similar to servile, that did endure. The word crystallizes well the elitism of trans-European Latin learning as opposed to local mother tongues.

On inkhorn terms and borrowing in general, as well as Wilson, see: Bailey 59, 271-74; Barber, Beal, & Shaw 187-90; Baugh & Cable 214-22 (including long selections from texts); Paula Blank, “The Babel of Renaissance English,” esp. 222-30, in Mugglestone; Millward & Hayes 225-27; Crystal, CEEL 60-61 (with brief quotations); Dieter Katovsky, “Vocabulary,” esp. 256-65, in Hogg & Denison; Lerer ch. 10; Susan Doran and Jonathan Woolfson, “Wilson, Thomas (1523/4–1581),” DNB.

For a full edition of the key part of Wilson’s text–including his full quotation from an exemplarily exsufflicate letter–see David Burnley, A History of the English Language: A Sourcebook, 2nd ed. (London: Pearson Longman, 2000): 216-21 (text 25). Text 31 (252-59) presents an edition of Love’s Labours Lost 5.1, featuring Holofernes.

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