How English Was Made

One language’s long journey from humble to honorificabilitudinitatihus.

Long ago, English was considered a barbarian’s tongue. It was fine for the workshop and tavern, but unfit for philosophy, art, and matters of the spirit. Even in England, the Catholic church and universities used Latin, while French was the language of Britain’s royal court and legal system.

But with the 15th- and 16th-century Renaissance, a surge of scholarship brought advances to all areas of thought. Scholars realized that they could use the printing press with everyday languages— even the debased English— to spread ideas. An audacious project was born: Translators would make Plutarch, Cicero, and ancient texts accessible for this uncultured lot.

Trouble was, English didn’t have the words they needed.

One scholar was frustrated that “there ys many wordes in Latyn that we haue no propre englyssh accordynge therto.” Another complained that, compared with Greek, “our grosse tongue is a rude and a barren tong.” To fill in the gaps, translators started to borrow and create words based on Latin and Greek. For example, there was no English word animal. The closest was beast, but that excluded humans. Animal, in Latin, had a broader meaning. It meant any being with anima- breath, soul, feeling. So they used animal in their translations as if it were an English word. And pretty soon, it was.

A huge number of words we use to describe and explain (including describe and explain) come from this period of vocabulary innovation (yes, those too). The list includes (yep), from just the first half of the alphabet (you bet): absurd, adult, ambiguous, articulate, catastrophe, confide, deduce, dilemma, education, enigma, exact, expect, explain, frequent, gradual, hero, illustrate, imitate, irony, lament, map, myriad.

How wonderful this was for the barbarous language! But as the century progressed, some people began to object. While animal was useful, something like adminiculation, for “the act of giving help,” seemed unnecessary and not much shorter than the phrase it was supposed to simplify. Other short-lived words scholars threw around included addubitation (the act of questioning oneself), circumplicate (to wrap around), exsufflation (the act of blowing out), impotionate (poisoned), and ingent (immense).

It got so bad that these coinages earned a nickname: inkhorn terms, after portable ink containers, originally made from animal horn, that scholars hung from their belts. An inkhorn term was deliberately difficult, crafted to reflect well on the author rather than to make things clear for the reader. When Shakespeare wanted to mock this pretentiousness in Love’s Labour’s Lost, he created the word honorificahilitudinitatibus, a laughably inkhorn way of saying “the state of being able to achieve honors.”

Inkhorn opponents worried if we started using adminiculate instead of native words like help, there may come a time when all English words would be replaced. So they started a movement to make English English again. John Cheke, a scholar who thought “our own tung should be written cleane and pure,” tried it in his circa 1550 translation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, using translations formed from Old English roots instead of Latin and Greek. For example, in place of lunatic, which comes from luna for moon, he used moond. He also created biwordes (parables), freschman (proselyte), and gainrising (resurrection).

Another anti-inkhorn scholar, Ralph Lever, tried to recast the principles of logic in English. His 1573 book. The Art of Reason, Rightly Termed Witcraft, replaced terms like contradict, conclusion, definition, proposition, affirmation, negation, subject, and predicate with substitutes based on English roots: gainsay, endsay, say what, shewsay, yeasay, naysay, foreset, and backset. It didn’t really work, but it makes for fun reading today. Here’s one rule from the book: “Gainsaying shewsays are two shewsays, the one a yeasay, and the other a naysay, changing neither foreset, backset, nor verbe.” (Translation: Contradictory propositions are two propositions, the one an affirmation and the other a negation, with the same subject, predicate, and verb.)

In the end, English remained English even though it rejected moond and shewsay and absorbed plenty of inkhorn terms. Celebrate and confidence once sounded snooty, but we got used to them. We rejected ineoccogitable, but replaced it with the no-less-inkhorn inconceivable. We didn’t like exolete but welcomed obsolete. The English purists didn’t need to worry after all. The ability to try on words and accept or reject them, whether they are Latin or not, is a sign of a language being robustly alive (unlike, say, Latin). The success or failure of a word has less to do with its origin than with whether we find it useful, or, sometimes more simply, whether we like it. On that grounds, maybe honorificabilitudinitatibus is due for a gainrising.