Food & Culture

16th-Century Scholars Once Tried to Kick Latin Out of English

The longest word in Shakespeare is "honorificabilitudinitatibus." Shakespeare didn't coin the word; by the time he used it, it had become something of a joke, a comment on the aggressive invasion of pompous Latin terms in English. It's an overly complicated, showoffy way to say "the state of being able to achieve honor." Over the course of the 15th and 16th centuries, English had become so infested with these types of words that they merited a bit of mockery. For some, mockery wasn't enough. They wanted to kick Latin out of the language.

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The Latin Vocabulary Invasion

The Latin influence in English goes back hundreds of years before Shakespeare. After the Norman invasion of 1066, a wave of Latin-origin French words were incorporated into English. They were so well incorporated that we don't notice their "foreignness" at all. Words like "air," "color," "language," "peace," "power," "reason," and "study" all ultimately come from Latin and are thoroughly English now. Because Latin was the language of the church and universities, some fancier words from those domains were also borrowed from Latin early on: words like "acolyte," "reconciliation," "mathematics," and "academic." For the most part, Latin was used for high-minded pursuits while English remained the lowly language of everyday life.

During the Renaissance, the printing press made it possible to spread ideas further than ever before and scholars began to produce works in the colloquial language, instead of Latin, to bring culture to the masses. The problem was, English didn't have the vocabulary they needed. So they borrowed and cobbled together new words from Latin parts. Words like "describe," "deduce," "explain," "illustrate," "subject," and "predicate" were (to use a few more of the new coinages) "introduced," "incorporated," and "accepted." But things started to get out of hand. They also came up with plenty of words that have since faded away: words like "suppeditation" (supplies), "illecebrous" (enticing), "allaqueate" (ensnared), and "addubitation" (the act of questioning oneself).

Though some Latinate words were created out of the necessity of finding compact ways to talk about complex concepts, many seemed to come from a preening desire, on the part of their users, to look as scholarly as possible. In the early 16th century, people started rolling their eyes and calling these "inkhorn" terms, named for the small horn used as a container for writing-ink that scholars once carried.

The Anglo-Saxon Pushback

It wasn't long before an effort to push back against this trend began. In 1557, John Cheke, a professor of Greek at Cambridge and classical scholar as scholarly and classical as they come, wrote, "I am of this opinion that our own tongue should be written clean and pure, unmixed and unmangled with borrowing of other tongues."

He had been working on his own English translation of St. Matthew's Gospel where he looked to Old English roots, instead of Latin and Greek ones, to coin true English translations. A "centurion" (from the Latin root centum, "a hundred") was a "hunderder." "Apostle," from the Latin apostolus, "one who is sent forth," was "frosent." "Resurrection" was "uprising." His goal was to make the gospels more accessible to those who had no higher learning in classical languages.

Another scholar named Ralph Lever sought to bring the classical study of logic to a wider audience with his book on "witcraft," his English translation of "the art of reason." For words like "conclusion," "negation," and "proposition" he supplied "endsay," "naysay," and "saywhat."

The Substitutes That Never Caught On

Though "frosent" and "endsay" never caught on and Latinate words settled themselves ever more firmly into English over the next few centuries, the feeling that there was something uncomfortable about the overuse of Latin in English continued. Four hundred years later, George Orwell warned that "bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers."

Not only have a good number of these grand, fancy words been completely absorbed into English, but they have been so thoroughly absorbed that they no longer seem fancy at all. These days, it sounds far less showoffy to say "immediately" than "anon," or "reluctant" than "loath." It's unlikely we will ever become completely at ease with "honorificabilitudinitatibus," but that won't be because it comes from Latin.

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Hear the story of how Latin found its way into so many modern languages in the book "Latin Alive: The Survival of Latin in English and the Romance Languages" by Joseph B. Solodow. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Arika Okrent October 19, 2018

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