Tag Archives: inkling

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.


Edgar Frick and Marilyn Frack appeared to be wrinkling their brows more than usual. And, in fact, their brows appeared to be more than usual. As I neared the leather-clad duo, who were also looking even more than usually feral – yet still urbane – I discerned that they had Star-Trek-derived rubber prostheses on their heads. And their leather suits had somehow managed to acquire a number of loose socks and other light fabric items, apparently (if unbelievably) held on by static.

Well, what the heck. It was the Order of Logogustation’s pre-Hallowe’en masquerade. If I could come as ogham (in a rather scratchy suit), they could come as…

Kling-ons,” Edgar said, raising his glass of sparkling wine. He tapped it with Marilyn’s and they simultaneously chimed “Kling!”

“Oh, yes,” Marilyn said, chuckling, “we’re having a crackling good time this evening.” She made a little frisson that caused her fizzy wine to slosh.

“Careful, dear,” said Edgar, “you’re sprinkling.”

“And apparently you’re both pickling,” I observed. “But I see you’re testing the limits of our truckling and stickling, coming as a pseudo-morpheme.”

“Are you heckling?” asked Marilyn, her eyes twinkling.

“Oh, no, no,” I said. “Any word taster with so much as a darkling inkling will pick out the tickling of a good pseudo-morpheme. Of course one most usually uses pseudo-morpheme to mean something that’s a morpheme in one place and appears falsely as one in another, such as car in carpet.”

“But copter in helicopter can be called one,” Edgar pointed out. “And so why not kling, which shows up in so many places?”

“Although sometimes across syllable boundaries, and sometimes with a long or even syllablic /l/,” I reminded him.

“Well,” Marilyn said, “they really all fall into one of two sets: verbs with the frequentative le suffix, with ing added, like tinkling, and nouns ending in k that have the diminutive or relational ling suffix added, like duckling.”

“And they have that stop-liquid movement of the tongue that sets your skin prickling,” Edgar added, running his finger up Marilyn’s spine. Marilyn obliged with another frisson.

“You’re certainly not missing the echoes,” I said, looking at their static cling and their glasses. “But you are missing one word that doesn’t fit either pattern.”

“Well,” Marilyn said, eyebrow arched, “I don’t have an inkling what that would be.”

“You rather do,” I said. “You just said it, in fact.”

“But inkling comes from inkle!” Marilyn protested.

Inkle is really a backformation,” I said.

Edgar raised an index finger. “It’s you against the OED, old boy.”

I raised an index finger right back at him. “But even the OED gives only two citations that they don’t themselves describe as backformations, and they can’t say where those come from. Whereas the American Heritage Dictionary has a rather anfractuous explanation that follows it from niche through nik, ‘notch’ or ‘tally,’ through nikking, meaning ‘slight indication’ or ‘whisper,’ to ningkiling, which, through false splitting, went from a ningkiling to an ingkiling, or an inkling.”

“Well, that’s a bit of linguistic swashbuckling,” Marilyn said, crinkling her nose.

“And we nonetheless have to deal with the ink, which is an indisputable pseudo-morpheme,” Edgar said. “There’s no ink in this word, but who can’t think of an ink spot when saying it? Or perhaps a little pen imp peeking from the inkpot?”

“Ah,” Marilyn purred, “a darkling little darling.”

“And there’s a word that goes both ways,” Edgar said, almost leering. “Darkling, such a nice poetic word, suckling at the teat of Erato.” (Marilyn gave another frisson and tossed back her sparkling.) “Originally dark plus ling, but more recently backformed to darkle.”

“No need to engage in wanton Eraticism while tackling these words, you Greekling,” I said.

Marilyn winked and stroked the back of a fingernail down my cheek. “Oh, don’t be a weakling,” she said, cackling.

“We cling? Oh,” I replied, “I’m glad to let you cling.” Which they were. To each other. But they were closing on me, too.

Marilyn gave me an elevator look, and I don’t think she was reading my ogham. “Edgarrrrr,” she mrowled, “I think someone needs a spankling.”

At which point I made myself scarce in a twinkling.