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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

XX. The Language from Chaucer to Shakespeare

§ 7. Literary influence on the vocabulary

While the language, so far as its vocabulary was concerned, thus kept pace with the expansion of national life and thought, by means of borrowing from abroad, it was also subject to certain internal influences. Literary men, in general, extended the vocabulary by indulging in coinages; but more important than this was the vogue given to certain words and phrases in consequence of their happy use by some of the great writers. Such expressions were stamped with permanency and became current coin of the highest value.

In the first place, new formations, devised by contemporary writers out of material ready at hand, represent an appreciable extension of the normal vocabulary, though, in many cases, they were not to prove permanent. A host of newly-coined compounds are scattered in the works of the time and represent the operation of various devices upon a plastic stage of the language. A spirited style would produce sonorous compounds like “sky-bred chirpers,” “heart-scalding sighs,” “home-keeping wits” and “cloud-capt towers.” A satirical effect might be obtained by onomatopoeic reduplication such as “rif-raf,” “tag-rag” and “hugger-mugger,” though this formation, being crude and mechanical, failed to maintain a literary rank. A word like “find-fault” would be coined with an eye to alliterative effect, “gravel-blind” with a view to a play upon the word “sand-blind” (i.e. sam-blind); while other coinages, like “ablesse” and “idlesse,” “goddise” (deity) and “grandity,” “mobocracy,” “fathership,” “foehood,” “praecel” (excel) and “Turkishness” (barbarism), though they represent a blending of material, intelligible then and now, were rendered unnecessary by forms otherwise constructed, which, in some way or other have maintained themselves.

Then, again, literary influences at work on the elements of the native vocabulary often resulted in the formation of expressions and phrases to which their authors, indirectly, gave a wide currency and a permanent value. Many of them were to enter into daily conversation, while their innate beauty still renders them fit for the highest literary usage. The main sources of this influence were the works of Spenser and Shakespeare, and the English Bible. From Spenser, we get such forms as “elfin,” “Braggadochio,” “blatant,” “derring-do” and “squire of dames”; from Shakespeare, such expressions as “benedict,” “the undiscovered country,” “the primrose path,” “single blessedness,” “to die by inches,” “to eat the leek,” “this working-day world” and “coign of vantage”; while from the English Bible come the forms, “loving-kindness,” “heavy-laden,” “peacemaker,” “scape-goat,” “shibboleth,” “mammon,” “Babel” and “helpmeet,” as well as the phrases, “the fat of the land,” “the eleventh hour,” “the shadow of death,” “a soft answer” and “a labour of love.” Many of these expressions have attained the dignity of unidentified quotations, but, nevertheless, they are contributions to the growth of the language, and, as such, are possessed of as much significance as separate additions to the vocabulary.