An Inkling

Inkling (ink-ling) n. [ME. ingkiling < inclen, to give an inkling of] 1. Mentioning in an undertone; a faint or slight mention, report, or rumour; chiefly in phrase to hear an inkling (of something). 2. A hint, a slight intimation, or suggestion; usually to give (one) an inkling (of something). 3. A hint or slight intimation received; hence, a slight or vague knowledge or notion, however acquired; a suspicion; esp. in phrase to have, get an inkling (of something).

[J. R. R. Tolkien to William Luther White]

76 Sandfield Road

11th September, 1967

Dear Mr. White,

I can give you a brief account of the name Inklings: from memory. The Inklings had no recorder and C. S. Lewis no Boswell. The name was not invented by C.S.L. (nor by me). In origin it was an undergraduate jest, devised as the name of a literary (or writers') club. The founder was an undergraduate at University College, named Tangye-Lean,--the date I do not remember: probably mid-thirties. He was, I think, more aware than most undergraduates of the impermanence of their clubs and fashions, and had an ambition to found a club that would prove more lasting. Anyway, he asked some 'dons' to become members. C.S.L. was an obvious choice, and he was probably at that time Tangye-Lean's tutor (C.S.L. was a member of University College). In the event both C.S.L. and I became members. The club met in T.-L.'s rooms in University College; its procedure was that at each meeting members should read aloud, unpublished compositions. These were supposed to be open to immediate criticism. Also if the club thought fit a contribution might be voted worthy of entry in a Record Book. (I was the scribe and keeper of the book).

Tangye-Lean proved quite right. The club soon died: the Record Book had very few entries: but C.S.L. and I at least survived. Its name was then transferred (by C.S.L.) to the undetermined and unelected circle of friends who gathered about C.S.L., and met in his rooms in Magdalen. Although our habit was to read aloud compositions of various kinds (and lengths!), this association and its habit would in fact have come into being at that time, whether the original short-lived club had ever existed or not. C.S.L. had a passion for hearing things read aloud, a power of memory for things received in that way, and also a facility in extempore criticism, none of which were shared (especially not the last) in anything like the same degree by his friends.

I called the name a 'jest', because it was a pleasantly ingenious pun in its way, suggesting people with vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink. It might have been suggested by C.S.L. to Tangye-Lean (if he was the latter's tutor); but I never heard him claim to have invented the name. Inkling is, at any rate in this country, in very common use in the sense that you quote from C.S.L.'s writings. [I remember that when I was an undergraduate there was, briefly, an undergraduate club called the Discus, suggesting a round-table conference, and discuss: it was a discussion club.]

With best wishes,

Yours sincerely,

J. R. R. Tolkien

William Luther White,
Illinois Wesleyan University,

[from William Luther White, The Image of Man in C. S. Lewis (Nashville: Abingdon, 1969), 221-222.]