A Short History of
The "Inkhorn Controversy"
The Renaissance marked a new great period of vocabulary
expansion dictated by the need for new words to express the
widening experiences and ideas of a rapidly developing nation.
In the sixteenth century the influx of Latinate borrowings
sparkled the “inkhorn controversy” – a heated discussion of the
extent, to which it was permissible and proper to import words
into English from other languages.
Many of the debate
participants took a disapproving attitude. For example, in Queen
Elizabeth I’s reign, George Puttenham, an English courtier and
the author of The Arte of English Poesie (1589), one of
the most important critical works of the Elizabethan age,
complained about the excessive use of “inkhorn terms, smelling
too much of the Latin,” just as Thomas Wilson had earlier railed
in his Art of Rhetorique (1553) against those who “seeke
so far for outlandish English that they forget altogether their
The controversy was, in effect, a debate about ways and means, by
which functional elaboration of the vernacular could be achieved.
The Elizabethans were beginning to take greater pride in their
mother tongue as an important expression of national identity.
Writers and poets no longer agreed with the earlier conception of
the vernacular as an inadequate and humble linguistic medium and
strove to assert the equality of their own language and literature
with those of antiquity.
One way to secure that eloquence, which had traditionally been
associated with the classical tongues, was by borrowing from the
classical languages, as well as prestigious contemporary sources,
such as French and Italian. Some writers who adopted this strategy
sometimes went too far. It is possible to find samples of the
sixteenth-century prose where loans are so plentiful that the
passage can hardly be recognized as English. A splendid example of
the genuine use of inkhorn terms of French and Latin origin can be
found, for instance, in a formal dedication from the preface to A.
Boorde’s Dyetary (1542-7):
To the armypotent Prynce and valyent lorde Thomas Duke of Northfolke.
Andrewe Boorde of physycke doctor: dothe surrender humyle
commendacyon with immortal thankes.
After the tyme that I had trauelled for to haue the notycyon &
practes of Physycke in diuers regyons and countries...
The message done, I with festinacyon & dylygence did not prolonge
The whiche did know, not only your complexcion and infyrmite, but
also... the imbecyllyte and strength of your body, with other
qualytes expedyent & necessary to be knowen: but brefely to
conclude, [for] your recuperating or recoueryng your health. . . . I
was convocated to be in the presence of his majesty.
I ... hauyng a cotydyal remembrance vpon youre bountyfull goodnes,
dyd consulte with many egregyous Doctours of physycke... for the
conseruacyon of the health of your body.
And where I haue dedycated this boke to your grace, And haue not
ornated hit with eloquence & retorycke termes, the whyche in all
maner of bokes and wryttynges is vsed these modernall dayes.