Monday 31 May 2010


Given that a duckling is a small duck, a darling is a small dear and a godling is a small god, you might be lured into the belief that an inkling is a small splash of ink on the face of a fool. Dear reader, you would be half-right.

Ling is being used as a diminutive suffix but the ink comes from incen, meaning to mutter or whisper. So an inkling is a soft whisper.

However, the word has suffered every indignity at the hands of lexicographers and a giddy public. Dr Johnson, wrongly but reasonably, thought that it was to do with clink. He wrote that "The word is derived by Skinner, from inklincken, to sound within", a bit like tinkling.

Others thought that it was related to inclination, which is why Robert Southey wrote in 1824 "I feel inklings to address an ode to the people of Liverpool", a usage as perverse as the desire that it expresses.

Still others decided (as with sideling) that there simply must be a verb inkle of which inkling was the gerund. This seems to have been employed mainly by the pseudo-dialect school of writing. Richard Blackmore, who wrote Lorna Doone, has "His marriage settlement and its effects, they could only inkle of", Hardy uses it to typically tedious effect, but Samuel Butler in Erewhon Revisited has the lovely line:

People like being deceived, but they also like to have an inkling of their own deception, and you never inkle them.

An inkosi contemplating inkyo


  1. I don't know. Johnson, Southey, Blackmore, Hardy ... and I thought they could all be trusted. I am dismayed. At least, I have an inkle that I am.

  2. "a usage as perverse as the desire that it expresses"


  3. Two things. 1. You are missing an "and" in "lexicographers a giddy public," or I have misunderstood. 2. How does "darkling" fit into all this?


  4. 1. Quite right.
    2. Rather complicated. The thing is that the ling suffix can work in a few different ways. It can be a diminutive. It can just mean a person as in hireling (person hired) or earthling (person from earth). Some people say that Darling was formed like this (a dear person). There's even a relation to long, as in headlong. Darkling appears to use it as an adverbial ending and then gave us the adjective ('She left me darkling' or 'darkling thrush'), which has a slight difference of meaning from dark as it means "in the dark".
    There is no word darkle. Or at least there is but it was formed (like sidle) from a misunderstanding.
    If that isn't at all clear, then I'm afraid the facts aren't either.

    The OED has a word darklong, with this example "Darkelong without al pompe and ceremonies, buryed in a dunghil"

  5. The Antipodean1 June 2010 at 05:11

    Fran, you seem to be making the understandable, but possibly dangerous, assumption that Dogberry is to be trusted. This is the internet, after all.

    The Inklings of Oxford would perhaps have been using the 'person' suffix - person of Ink? Inky person? No doubt with the assorted riff on alternate meanings, clever chaps that they were. Possibly not whispering, though, that not usually being possible in pubs.

    Sideling is a word that really should be reinstated, and I am going to suggest to my brother that he uses it in place of wingman. He could then say 'I will just discuss whether or not you are fangast with my sideling' in relative safety, albeit at the risk of scaring off whoever he is talking to. Hmm; perhaps not an ideal outcome.

  6. Antipodean, I am as honest as the day is long and should never be trusted at a Finnish Christmas.

  7. The Antipodean2 June 2010 at 12:55

    Heh. Is that my day or your day? At the moment, here, that would be about 41% of the time. À Londres, it's about 66.67%, which is better, but still not 100%.

    And who could be trusted at a Finnish Christmas? They have some hard liquor up there.

    Where does that phrase come from - hard liquor? It is not unlike being hit with something hard, but presumably it's not that simple?