Literature Word of the Week – Inkhorn

26 Weeks to a Better Understanding of Literature

I’m aiming to improve my knowledge around all things English literature, and to help me do this I thought I’d start by learning a new literary word every week,  A-Z.  Although knowing me it might not be in any alphabetic order.  I might treat this more like a list on random shuffle.

So, I find a word that relates to literature and research the following on it:

  • How does it sound?
  • What does it mean?
  • Who invented it (if known)
  • When did the word come about?
  • Example to be used in a sentence (preferable in spoken form).


Week 10:


This week’s word is quite unusual in that I’ve not heard the term before and to say it out loud appears to show your dislike at something, but what I wondered?

a small container of horn or other material, formerly used to hold writing ink.
1350–1400; Middle English – Source:

Inkhorn, a term originating in the 16 cent., applied to excessively literary, bookish, or pedantic language – from The Oxford Companion to English Literature

So this word actually has two meanings but interestingly while one describes a tool the other appears to call a type of writing a tool!

Apparently at the time the word originated Latin and Greek language was at odds with it’s Saxon counterparts, or the transition of middle English wordings to Modern English wordings.  By all accounts Inkhorn got into the new language style but many writer of classical language were a bit put out by it, which is probably where the account of ‘pedantic’ language comes in.

In 1560, Thomas Wilson, the English writer and Secretary of State published the now famous the Arte of the Rhetorique detailing notable uses of language and the variety of the English Language.  Most notable in that publication was included a letter, called Inkhorn, from a Lincolnshire clergyman seeking preferment treatment to a gentleman:

There is a Sacerdotall dignitie in my natiue Countrey contiguate to me, where I now contemplate: which your worshipfull benignitie could sone impetrate for mee, if it would like you to extend your sedules, and collaude me in them to the right honourable lord Chaunceller, or rather Archgrammacion of Englande.

What wise man reading this Letter, will not take him for a very Caulf that made it in good earnest, and thought by his inke pot termes to get a good Parsonage. Doeth wit rest in straunge wordes, or els standeth it in wholsome matter, and apt declaring of a mans minde? Doe wee not speake because we would haue other to vnderstande vs, or is not the tongue giuen for this ende, that one might know what an other meaneth? And what vnlearned man can tel, what half this letter signifieth?

Rhode Island College

As far as Wilson was concerned that letter had the most appalling uses of Latin and too much of it at that.  It was his wish to ensure the English Language developed well.  A bit like being back at School then during a spelling test.

While the development of the English language continues even today it’s rather interesting to see how words have changed, and indeed how their meanings have become more than what they were originally intended to name or describe, just like inkhorn.

We might call a person an inkhorn today with the complete lack of spelling and grammar thanks to phone texting.  What at one time may have been a ‘hello, how are you today?’, is nothing more than an ‘alright?’, or a ‘see you later’ when you have no intention of seeing that person any time soon.

Or perhaps by using older, more descriptive language we may also be called inkhorns.

Another modern inkhorn, I think, would be someone who uses business acronyms in public department (notably) correspondence so much that anyone from outside his/her organisation would have absolutely no idea what the meaning of the intended email would be.  Thank goodness for the plan English campaign on that score!

Language has no way of keeping still though and as it develops I hope as a reader I develop with it.


2 responses to “Literature Word of the Week – Inkhorn

  1. Lovely post. I’m possibly an Inkhorn at times. I cannot let the irony slip though. ‘Plan English Campaign’?
    I hope that was intentional, because if it was, it’s brilliant!

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