Daily Archives: January 9, 2016

inkle, inkling

OK, give me a hink-pink for a lexeme attested in current speech.

A heard word.

Right! And a hinky-pinky for a coruscating suspicion?

A twinkling inkling.

You’re good. Now how about confetti from linen tape? Another hinky-pinky.


How about a hinky-pinky for mollusk whisper?


Oh, come on. Inkle sprinkle for the first, winkle inkle for the second.

Inkle? I don’t think that’s a heard word.

Alas. Inkle is not included in your lexicon? You know what an inkling is, of course. But did you not imagine that there was a verb inkle to be derived into inkling?

If you’re like me, you may not have. For a long time, I assumed that inkling was formed like earthling: the –ling a suffix indicating a derivative denizen or member. Yearling. Youngling. Underling. So an inkling was, to my thought, a little spirit born of ink – that is to say, a word, or an inchoate or incipient written expression. I still like that best. The image of an impish sprite of the printed page charms me.

But no. Inkling is not ink+ling, it is inkl(e)+ing. And inkle is an old and now largely disused verb meaning ‘whisper, hint in an undertone’. An inkling is not an iota, nor a jot or tittle; it is a scintilla, perhaps, or susurration, or suspicion, or hint.

Knowing this, you may be inclined to say it with a longer /l/ – the syllable break occurring not before the /l/ but on top of it. But of course it can be hard to hear such subtle differences, especially in casual speech.

Some people do use inkling to mean something like inclination because of the sonic similarity. So you may see “I haven’t the slightest inkling to do that” as well as “I haven’t the least inkling of that.” Although the ‘inclination’ sense comes from outside influence and reanalysis, there’s no point in fighting it; it’s been around for well over 200 years.

There is also a noun inkle, as I implied above. It refers to a kind of linen tape, “formerly much used for various purposes” as the Oxford English Dictionary says. It can also refer to the yarn from which the tape is made. The etymology of this noun is uncertain but may relate to a Dutch word for ‘single’.

The verb inkle is not related to the noun inkle as far as we know. Where does it come from? Of that we have…

…not the slightest inkling.