Sesquipedality (2). Today: Traditional Approaches. Hard words have a legitimate literary tradition. English has inherited two strains of literary expression, both deriving ultimately from ancient Greek rhetoric. On the one hand is the plain style now in vogue, characterized by unadorned vocabulary, directness, unelaborate syntax, and earthiness. (This style is known to scholars as Atticism.) On the other hand we have the grand style, which exemplifies floridity, allusiveness, formal and sometimes abstruse diction, and rhetorical ornament. Proponents of this verbally richer style (called Asiaticism) proudly claim that the nuances available in the “oriental profusion” of English synonyms make the language an ideal putty for the skilled writer to mold and shape precisely. The Asiaticist sees the opulence of our language as providing apt terms for virtually every conceivable context. Still, using the abundant resources of English is widely, if not wisely, discouraged. This attitude is as old as Modern English. During the 16th century, when our language had just begun to take its modern form, learned Englishmen who enriched their lexically impoverished tongue with Latin and Greek loanwords were vilified as “smelling of inkhorn” or as “inkhornists.” Thus one of the more notable borrowing neologists of the Renaissance, Sir Thomas Elyot, author of The Governour, wrote in 1531: “Divers men, rather scornying my benefite [‘beneficence,’ i.e., adding to the English word-stock] than receyving it thankfully, doo shew them selves offended (as they say) with my straunge termes.” The “straunge termes” this redoubtable inkhornist gave us include “accommodate,” “education,” “frugality,” “irritate,” “metamorphosis,” “persist,” and “ruminate.” He sought not to parade his formidable erudition, but rather “to augment our Englyshe tongue, wherby men shulde as well expresse more abundantly the thynge that they conceyved in theirs hartis (wherefore language was ordeyned) havinge wordes apte for the purpose.” In retrospect, of course, the efforts of Elyot and others like him were not in vain because they enriched the language. Next: A Synthesis of Style. For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “An exact and extensive vocabulary is an important concomitant of success.” Johnson O’Connor, “Vocabulary and Success,” in Twentieth Century English 104, 115 (William S. Knickerbocker ed., 1946).
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