The Grammarphobia Blog

An inkling of medieval times

Q: I just read an article in an information technology trade magazine wherein the author used the word “inkle” as a verb meaning to imply or to hint. That can’t be right – can it?

A: This is one of those “Eureka!” moments.

The verb “inkle” is extremely old, and dates back to the 1300s. Its original meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was “to utter or communicate in an undertone or whisper, to hint, give a hint of.”

With the addition of “ing,” the verbal noun “inkling” was born around 1400. It meant – and still means – a slight mention, hint, or subtle intimation.

Meanwhile, the parent verb, “inkle” fell into oblivion and pretty much vanished for hundreds of years.

It was essentially reinvented in the 1860s, and again around 1900, apparently as a back-formation from “inkling,” according to the OED. (A back-formation is a new word formed by dropping part of an older one, as “escalate” was formed from “escalator,” and “burgle” from “burglar.”)

R. D. Blackmore, the author of Lorna Doone, used the verb in his lesser-known novel Cradock Nowell (1866): “His marriage settlement and its effects, they could only inkle of.”

And Samuel Butler used it in Erewhon Revisited (1901), a sequel to his better-known utopian novel Erewhon (1872): “People like being deceived, but they also like to have an inkling of their own deception, and you never inkle them.”

In 1904, Thomas Hardy inkled in the first part of his three-part Napoleonic drama The Dynasts: “Thou art young, and dost not heed the Cause of things / Which some of us have inkled to thee here.”

Now, “inkle” seems to have been reinvented again! Technically, it may be a back-formation, but I secretly like to think of it as a revival of a medieval verb.

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