“Samuel Johnson, Inkhornisms, and Language as a Social Marker”*

 *from: “Latin in English 1500-1800”, by Andrea Di Giovanni (2003).

“…The Renaissance and Reformation had set in motion a linguistic path away from Latin and towards the vulgar tongue – English.  As Tony Crowley writes, the English language found itself wracked by issues of standardization in spelling, grammar, and usage (Crowley 55-6).  Crowley also notes that the creation of a Standard English inevitably meant that some forms and usages had to be left out (Crowley 56) and scholars often attempt to show that Johnson’s particular position on the social scale is explicable by an examination of his habits of usage and which terms he included in the Dictionary. Susan M. Fitzmaurice notes that in the eighteenth century “a facility to speak well and appropriately seemed increasingly to guarantee social mobility” (Fitzmaurice 309).  The burgeoning English language, then, while it provided a distinct national identity, also served to reinforce class distinctions.  The ‘type’ of English one spoke, made up of one’s vocabulary and usage, accorded one a particular place on the social scale.  Johnson, despite his Latin training and complex linguistic constructions , was the son of a bookseller (Ousby 491) and not of the gentility.  Instead, as Hudson points out, despite the tendency to consider Johnson’s Dictionary as “an instrument for suppressing lower-class idioms and for authorizing the language of the upper classes as the only ‘proper’ English,” his inclusion of some cant and ‘low’ words and exclusion of other words considered acceptable by fashionable society meant that the Dictionary was not a “polite” book. Fashionable society subsequently treated Johnson just as his Dictionary is accused of dividing others along “class lines”(Hudson 77, 88, 89).

 Critics, both in his own day and in the present, associate Johnson’s prose style and his excessive use of Latinisms as the mark of one overtly attempting to climb the social ladder.  Hudson quotes from Thomas Edwards, a contemporary of Johnson’s, who complains in 1755 that Johnson crowds his work with “monstrous words…which were never used by any who pretended to talk or write English” (Hudson 88).  These “monstrous words” are known as inkhorn terms, and Johnson had a great affinity for them.  Hudson notes that this “reveals the influence of seventeenth-century science and philosophy on his thought” since the seventeenth century was a period of rapid change from Latin to the vernacular (Hudson 88 fn).  J.C.D. Clark believes that since Johnson was trained in the Anglo-Latin tradition, he had a high emotional investment in its continuance and consistently bemoaned the demise of Latin in everyday usage (Clark 67 and Weinbrot 176).  On the other hand, ‘polite’ society found Johnson’s excessive use of inkhorn terms such as aedespotick, turbinated, and perflation, off-putting and his style “stilted and opaque” (Hudson 88-9).

 The resistance Johnson encountered with respect to Latinisms was not a new form of protest to surface against the flagrant use of inkhorn terms to augment the English lexicon.  Inkhorn terms are so named because they tend to be used more in writing than in speech (inkhorns or inkpots were containers in which one stored ink) and are largely held to be a literary affectation (McArthur 521).  McArthur records a passage by Thomas Wilson in The Arte of Rhetorique written in 1553:

 Among all other lessons this should be first learned, that we never affect any straunge ynkehorne termes, but to speak as is commonly received: nether seeking to be over fine nor yet living over-careless, 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.

 Wilson’s examples of inkhorn terms are: revoluting, ingent affability, ingenious capacity, and splendidious (McArthur 521).  A contemporary of Wilson’s, Sir John Cheke, who also destested inkhorn terms writes to Sir Thomas Hoby in 1557: “I am of this opinion that our own tongue should be written clean and pure, unmixt and unmangled with borrowing of other tongues” (Johnson 115).  A sense of national identity was intimately linked with the “purity” of the language spoken.

 Inkhornisms became so thoroughly associated with Samuel Johnson that in the 1780s the term “Johnsonian” was coined to refer to his particular style of inkhornism or anything resembling it.  McArthur notes that Johnson’s moralizing essays in The Rambler best exemplify “Johnsonian” writing with its long words and phrases such as “I could seldom escape to solitude, or steal a moment from the emulation of complaisance, and the vigilance of officiousness” (McArthur 549).  The eighteenth century tended away from such formal discourse, and Johnson Latinate vocabulary was not well accepted (McArthur 549). In the nineteenth century another word, “Johnsonese” surfaced as another pejorative term to refer to the elevated style of Samuel Johnson  (McArthur 549) and it alludes to the notion that Johnson’s static attempt at upward social mobility and his highly esoteric writing style employing Latin and Latinisms to maintain a scholarship as a “profession” was considered uncouth and pedantic (Hudson 88-89). Samuel Johnson is the perfect example of a scholar caught in the crossfire between nationalistic tendencies towards a pure vernacular, and the long European history of Latin in academia. 

 By the end of the eighteenth century the position of the vernacular English as the language of academia, religion, and law was complete:  in 1687 Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica had appeared in Latin in order to reach the broadest audience (Millward 227 and Rice. Jr. 18.) whereas in 1704 Newton’s Opticks; or, a treatise of the reflections, refractions, inflections, and colours of light  was published in English marking the period in which significant scholarly work began to appear in the vernacular (McArthur 587). By 1776 the prevalence of Latin in the academic realm in England had declined sharply, and the authority of English was assured (Finegan 536).While English had certainly come into its own by the end of the eighteenth century, it is important to bear in mind what Peter Burke calls a “provision conclusion” surrounding the case of Latin versus the Vernacular, in this case, English:  “Although declared ‘dead’, Latin would not lie down.  It remained useful, indeed vigorous in particular domains and in particular parts of Europe throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (Burke 24).  For example, in fields such as medicine and botany, Latin remained, and is still today, a crucial tool for learning, and knowledge of the Latin involved still functions to designate one as learned in the area.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s