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‘The Ink-Horn Controversy’. By Alice Pugh. The Origins Of “Ink-Horn ”. ‘The man that hadde an enk-horn in his rigge (belt)’ This is from Wycliffe's translation of the bible, it is a very early use of Ink Horn, used to describe the container used to hold ink in.

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The Origins Of “Ink-Horn”

‘The man that hadde an enk-horn in his rigge (belt)’

This is from Wycliffe's translation of the bible, it is a very early use of Ink Horn, used to describe the container used to hold ink in.

The term was then taken and adapted by those against the ‘ornate’ French words found in more and more English writings. These words became known as ‘ink-horn’ terms as they used up or wasted lots of ink.

Chaucer is believed to be one of the first to use foreign terms, in the 1300’s, through the use of his characters. However it is believed to be a mockery of English people and their use of Spanish, French and Latin terms as the characters often mispronounce the terms or they don’t make sense.


The Influence of French

  • Many romance words can still be found to be used in English today:
  • Dieu et mon droit
  • Haute-Couture
  • Art Nouveau
  • Ballet
  • Chic
  • Equestrian
  • One reason for these new words is due to the inter-marriage and therefore bilingual children between French and English families.
  • Another reason is the semantic gap said to be in the English language, writers and expressive aristocrats were looking for more description and ways of using language.
  • These words used in England can be found in the written form more extensively during the Early modern English period.

The Influence of Latin

  • Latin had less of a bad reputation probably due to its religious connections and how early the language had been used in England.
  • Latin words were found to be incorporated in the English language more as exploration, and international trade increased. New products, foods, animals, plants never seen before had to be given a name they either kept the name of the donor language or the Latin came in handy, as did the other classic Greek.
  • Although the Romance (Latin and French) word stock rose and became half of the English language by the 1450’s the other half of Germanic origin didn’t disappear.
  • When looking at the language people speak today this is still seen to be true as although we have very many Latin and French words not many people in the spoken form of English (the colloquial) would call a foxglove Digitalis Purpurea.

The Influence of the Suffix

Many new words included in the ‘ink-horn’ debate had been created through the use of added Suffixes.

The expansion of English in this way came from using Latin and Greek words and expanding them this happened gradually throughout the early modern period and onwards.






Two-thirds of the new words that entered the English language in this way ended in –ate.






Two Stylistic Levels




Aristocracy and the well educated

Used more Romance words

Every Day



“normal folk” – reading and writing less, using the language to communicate, would have had less contact with rich French merchants lawyers scientists and academics.

Kept vocabulary of Germanic origin.



References to the class difference due to language and the difference in French or Latin words to older English ones can be found in Shakespeare.

Loves Labours Lost:

Act 1, Scene 1

FERDINAND: Ay, that there is. Our court, you know, is haunted With a refined traveller of Spain; A man in all the world's new fashion planted, That hath a mint of phrases in his brain; One whom the music of his own vain tongue Doth ravish like enchanting harmony; A man of complements, whom right and wrong Have chose as umpire of their mutiny: This child of fancy, that Armado hight, For interim to our studies shall relate In high-born words the worth of many a knight From tawny Spain lost in the world's debate. How you delight, my lords, I know not, I; But, I protest, I love to hear him lie And I will use him for my minstrelsy.

BIRON: Armado is a most illustrious wight, A man of fire-new words, fashion's own knight.


Faux Pas or a Linguists Dream?

One guy called Thomas Wilson (1524-1581) wrote ‘The Arte of Rhetorique’ (1553).

He thoroughly opposed these longer non-English words. He questioned why we as a nation did not keep our own language, he had more purist ideas on what English should be. The quote below is taken form ‘The Arte of Rhetorique’:

Among all other lessons this should first be learned, that wee never affect any straunge ynkehorne termes, but to speake as it is commonly received: neither seeking to be over fine, nor yet living overcarelesse, using our speeche as most men doe, and ordering our wittes as the fewest have done. Some seeke so far for outlandish English, that they forget altogether their mothers language. And I deare sweare this, if some of their mothers are alive, thei were not able to tell what they say; and yet these fine English clerkes will say, they speake in their mother tongue, if a man should charge them for counterfeiting the Kings English.


Othersfelt differently about the loan words including George Pettie who thought that the ‘ink-horn’ terms were necessary to make the English language more exciting and interesting:

Wherefore I marueile how our english tongue hath crackt it credite, that it may not borrow of the Latine as well as other tongues: and if it haue broken, it is but if late, for it is not vnknowen to all men how many woordes we haue fetcht from thence within these fewe veeres, which if they should be all counted inkpot termes, I know not how we should speake anything without blacking our mouthes with inke: for what woord can be more plaine then this word plaine, and yet what can come more neere to the Latine?

George Pettie (Preface to The Ciuile conuersation of M. Steeuen Guazzo, 1581)



The Ink-horn controversy in the early modern English era is a debate between expanding the language or holding onto the middle English era. Before the huge increase in French and other foreign words in England there had been English and Latin. English slowly was beginning to become as prestigious and ‘fancy’ as Latin with longer and more descriptive terms. The use of a suffix and all these new terms gave English writers a much broader palette to work with. Many would argue that for this reason the change in the language was inevitable, especially when considering Latin how many would have known the language and would have wanted to take advantage of it.

The ‘ink-horn’ terms used are not all still around today but the influence writers experimenting with French and Latin have had has allowed the English language to grow and give us many more words to use and express ourselves with.




The Stories of English, David Crystal (Chapter 12 )

A History of English, Barbara A. Fennell

Sociolinguistics, R. A. Hudson

Internet Sites

1066 and all that:

EHistLing website:

University of Glasgow, School of English and Scottish Language and Literature :