Not an inkling

By Anatoly Liberman


Inkling: English is full of such cozy, homey words.  There is the noun inkle “linen tape or thread” and the verb inkle “to whisper.”  The noun is still listed as current, while the verb, which was extremely rare in the past, has survived only in dialectal use.  Both, as well as inkling, were first recorded in Middle English, but little can be said about them.  Winkle, twinkle, and crinkle shed no light on their past.  Inkle “tape” and inkle “whisper” don’t seem to belong together.  Dutch has enkel “simple,” and Swedish has enkel “single.”  Their root is the same as in German ein “one” (and in Engl. one, for that matter).  Perhaps the tape was narrow or of inferior quality, but, as the OED pointed out, the noun inkle need not be a borrowing from Dutch.  For the verb inkle to be connected with something simple or single, it had to mean “say something only once; make a single reference,” a most unlikely supposition.

Several distinguished scholars tried to discover the origin of inkling.  It may be useful to note that even though we have both the verb inkle and the noun inkling, the verb could have been a back formation from the noun, like televise from television, sculpt from sculptor, beg from beggar, grovel from groveling, and suckle form suckling.  Thomas H. Key, a classical scholar and once a widely respected etymologist, thought that inkling had a history comparable to that of phrases like get wind of and looked to Greek an-emo and Latin an-ima “soul; breath” for inspiration.  In-, he thought, was a cognate of em- ~ im-, with -k- and -(e)l- being diminutive suffixes.  But the German parallel ahnen “to have a foreboding” he cited was wrong, for ahnen (in which the letter h is a mere graphic device of vowel length) goes back to the preposition an and has nothing to do with breath or wind.

Key’s contemporary Herbert Coleridge, the poet’s grandson, was one of the founders of what became the Oxford English Dictionary, and if he had not died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty, he would have made many lasting contributions to linguistics.  (It is devastating to be related to a great man.  For example, no mention of Hensleigh Wedgwood does without reference to the fact that he was Darwin’s brother-in-law, as though being married to Darwin’s sister affected Wedgwood’s etymological doctrine.  I would not have mentioned the poet, but such a name inevitably arouses people’s curiosity, and I hastened to satisfy it before being asked.)

Coleridge compared inkle and Old Icelandic ymta “to mutter.”  From a semantic point of view the comparison is perfect, but it presupposes a good deal of phonetic trickery: -mt- to -nt- and -nt- to -nk-; -l will remain a suffix in all cases.  Similar changes do occur, but the more undocumented steps we posit, the less convincing the reconstruction appears.  If the English borrowed the Scandinavian verb that sounded approximately as imta, it would have yielded impta rather than inka, to which a suffix was later added.  At one time Skeat preferred to think of inkling as a borrowing of French inclination, but “hint” or “something said in an undertone” is rather far from “inclination,” so his derivation remained a shot in the dark.  Later he suggested that Swedish enkel was the etymon of inkle.

Coleridge’s article is a list of words of allegedly Scandinavian origin.  It contains no discussion, and there is no way of knowing how many people indexed it.  Otto Ritter, a German historical linguist, also traced inkling to ymta but gave no references.  He may have copied this idea from Coleridge or thought of the connection himself.  Interestingly, Coleridge included hint (which surfaced in the early sixteen-hundreds, so considerably later than inkle) in his list as also going back to ymta.  This was a clever suggestion.  The origin of hint is uncertain (perhaps from hent “seize”); however, the two words seem to have formed a union.  Alongside of inkling, hinkling, a variant of inkling, existed.  The monstrous spelling nyngkiling (almost certainly, from an inkling) shows that the word did not have a stable form and could be pronounced in three syllables.  If ymta is the common etymon of inkling and hint, we watch the change from mt to nt (in hint) and from mt to nk (in ink-l-ing).  Both inclination and hent may have influenced the pair.  All this is too vague to be called a hypothesis, but the idea of looking on inkling and hint as related deserves some attention.

The etymology that has gained greater approval was suggested by the German philologist Ferdinand Holthausen.  He cited Old Engl. inca, a word with cognates in and outside Germanic. Inca had the senses “question, scruple, suspicion, doubt; grievance, quarrel, grudge.”  Judging by the word’s related forms in other languages, it suggested pain; our glosses “question” and “scruple” conceal the displeasure probably implied in the uncertainty of the ancient queries and hesitation.  “A faint whisper” and “speaking in an undertone” may presuppose concealment, but “concealment” was not the main meaning of inca: it is grievance, doubt, and quarrel that come to the fore in the texts.  Holthausen’s etymology is by no means final, and the derivation of inkling remains a riddle.  It seems that inkling came before inkle, which is then a product of back formation, like suckle and grovel, mentioned above.

Dictionaries have little choice: if the etymology of a word is unknown or debatable (“uncertain”), that is what they should and do say.  Therefore, I was disappointed to see Holthausen’s conjecture reproduced as the ultimate truth in the third edition of Webster’s Unabridged.  A shorter variant of the same etymology appeared in the 1991 edition of Longman Dictionary of the English Language.  The original edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language had nothing to say about inkling, but the editors of the fourth edition pieced together the suggestions from Middle English Dictionary, took ningkeling for their starting point, and traced that word to nik “notch, tally”, a putative variant of Old French niche “niche.” This etymology, though prefaced by probably, has nothing to recommend it.  One can see how cautious one should be while looking for the etymological truth.

So inconclusive is this post that the only comfort will be a picture hinting at secrecy and concealment, but the clandestine act immortalized by the great master suggests no pain, just pleasure.  Perhaps we may even discern an inkling of the future in it, for such encounters are seldom isolated. This is “The Stolen Kiss” by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (right). Being a painter is preferable to being an etymologist.  Being a successful lover is even better.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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One Response to “Not an inkling
  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    Professor Liberman:
    Iknow this is a stretch, but what about inglenook? I traced it to a Gaelic word, while another etymology sources it to Latin(ingle). Just a thought.

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