Nashe's Insults

Squitter-books & Ink-squittering

  •  Use to attack writers

In Have with you to Saffron-Walden (1596), a bravura attack on Gabriel Harvey, Nashe uses the new compound word 'ink-squittering' to dismiss Harvey's dogged attempt to take on his rival:

“His braynes, his time, all hys maintenance & exhibition upon it he hath confirmed, and never intermitted, till such time as he beganne to Epistle it against mee, since which, I have kept him a work indifferently: and that in the deadest season that might bee; hee lying in the ragingest furie of the last Plague, when there dyde above 600 a week in London, inck-squittring and printing against me at Wolfes in Powles Church-yard. Three quarters of a yere thus cloystred and immured hee remained, not beeing able almost to step out of dores, he was so barricadoed up with graves, which besiedged and undermined his verie threshold” (HWY, N4v)

Not only are Harvey’s efforts portrayed in grotesque terms typical to Nashe, who imagines Harvey’s obliviousness to the bodies piling up on the streets outside; Nashe is also saying that Harvey is so obsessive that he has verbal-diarrhoea (inck-squittring) and has produced almost a year's worth of inky excretions in attempting to outmanoeuvre his rival.

The same accusation of copiousness could have been levelled against Nashe, as he elsewhere acknowledges in the rewritten preface to Christ's Teares over Jerusalem (1594). Nashe spends two pages answering the objections of commentators who dislike his "puft-vp stile" and "prophane eloquence". "Others," he admits, "object unto me the multitude of my boystrous compound wordes, and the often coyning of Italionate verbes which end all in ize, as mummianize, tympanize." (CT 1594,**ijv).

Today, Nashe still  has a reputation as a creator of words, with the Oxford English Dictionary ranking him as the 28th most prolific source for first quotations, yet, as the OED continues to update itself with earlier sources, this reputation is currently under revision.

For example, the current OED entry for squitter and squittering (defined as “to squirt; to splatter, splutter” and “to void thin excrement”) ascribes first usage to Nashe in three of his texts: Summer’s Last Will and Testament (which the OED dates from its year of publication in 1600, but which was written for performance in 1592), The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), and the section above from Have with you to Saffron Walden (1596). In fact the word is much older, as the super-heroically titled Batman uppon Bartholome his booke De proprietatibus rerum (1582) shows. This 1582 book was itself a revision by Stephen Bateman of a 1240 translation of De propriatatibus rerum by John de Trevisa. In his revised translation, Bateman provided a glossary for the “most hardest olde English words”, amongst which this entry:  "squitter. menstruall, or matter corrupt". Batman’s entry suggests, then, that squitter used as a scatological word dates back at least as far as de Trevisa’s original English translation in the mid 13th Century.

While Nashe can't be credited with coining the word squitter as the OED currently has it, his inventiveness instead lies in the creation of (as he himself describes in Christ’s Teares) "boystrous compound wordes." Nashe is not the inventor, but he is the first person in print to combine this Middle English word with the tools of his trade ―books and ink― to describe the ambivalent status of professional writers.

The OED defines this Nashean compound word in a separate definition for squitter-book as “a scribbler, a copious but worthless writer”.  InSummers Last Will and Testament, the clown-narrator Will Summer, asks his audience: “who would be a Scholler?” Nothing could make him a "squitter-booke", he claims, and continues to rail against learning: "Here before all this companie, I professe my selfe an open enemy to Inke and paper...Hang copies, flye out phrase books, let pennes be turnd to picktooths." (SLW,G3v). 

This is spoken in the voice of the now long-dead jester of Henry VIII, Will Sommers, in response to a long speech given by the character of Winter. His speech is contemptuous of scholars, despite Winter appearing to be well-read himself.  A ‘squitter-book’ in this instance is therefore a derogatory term aimed not at hack-writers, but is used (ironically by Nashe) against academics in general. 

The next time that Nashe uses the term is in The Unfortunate Traveller, in an oration delivered by “a bursten belly inkhorne orator called Vanderhulke" in the university town of Wittenberg (UT,1st ed. F1v). Known for his own prolixity, Nashe was however ruthless in attacking others (Gabriel Harvey chief amongst them) for their use of 'inkhorn terms', which are defined by George Puttenham as "some words of exceeding great length, which have been fetched from the Latin inkhorn or borrowed of strangers"(The Arte of English Poesie 1589, p.68).

Writing in Strange Newes (1592), Nashe holds up for scorn Harvey's "misbegotten bodgery" of "the very guts of the inkehorne" such as Entelechy and addoulce, which he describes as "Hermophrodite phrases, being halfe Latin and halfe English" (SN, B4r-v). Entelechy comes from the Greek entelekheia (via the Latin entelechīa), and is a philosophical term from Aristotle to describe an essence's potential being fully realised. The OED dates the anglicised entelechy to John Florio's translation of Montaigne's Essays (1603), yet the first printed instance appears in Harvey's Four Letters Confuted (1592). On the same page, Harvey uses the word addoulce, a 15th Century borrowing from the French and Latin, meaning to mollify or make sweet, which Nashe also points too as dredged from the depths of the inkhorn.

The orator Vanderhulke in The Unfortunate Traveller may have been inspired by Harvey, whom Nashe addresses directly as 'My Doctour Vanderhulk' in Have with you to Saffron-Walden (1596). In the following passage, we can see that Nashe is mocking the excessive use of inkhorn terms, as well as (to quote Arthur Kinney) Vanderhulke's "enthusiastic misapplication of the standard rhetorical handbooks".[i]   

"What impotent spéech with his eight partes may not specifie this unestimable gift holding his peace, shall as it were (with teares I speake it) do wherby as it may seeme or appeare, to manifest or declare & yet it is, & yet it is not, & yet it may bee a diminitive oblation meritorious to your high pusillanimitie & indignity. Why shoulde I goe gadding and filgigging after firking flantado Amphibologies, wit is wit, and good will is good will. With all the wit I have, I here according to the premises, offer up unto you the Cities generall good will, which is a guilded Canne, in manner and forme following, for you and the heires of your bodie lawfully begotten, to drinke healths in. The scolasticall squitter bookes clout you up cannopies & foot-clothes of verses. Wee that are good fellowes, and live as merie as cup and can, will not verse upon you as they do, but must doe as we can, and entertaine you if it bee but with a playne emptie Canne. He hath learning inough that hath learnd to drinke to his first man." (UT, 1st ed. F1v-F2r)

Here we have Vanderhulke, who— despite addressing the Duke of Saxony in such florid language— distinguishes himself from 'the scolasticall squitter bookes'. In this instance, it seems that a 'squitter-book' is a sycophant, who produces 'clouted' or 'patched up' ceremonial verses.[ii] Instead, Vanderhulke presents himself as a natural rather than a learned wit: 'He hath learning inough that hath learnd to drinke to his first man.' Nashe portrays Vanderhulke as a pedant trying to sound like a raconteur, but who is in fact an inept user of rhetorical devices and neologisms: a true ink-squitterer.

Kate De Rycker

[i] Arthur Kinney, Humanist Poetics: Thought, Rhetoric, and Fiction in Sixteenth-century England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986) p.340

[ii] Ceremonial because these verses are described as 'canopies' which were held over dignitaries in processions, and foot-cloths: richly ornamented cloth used to kneel in front of royalty.

Last modified: Tue, 06 Sep 2016 14:34:24 BST