I see it time and again: an expression that I found charming when I first observed it so many years ago, but one that is beginning to strike me as a pompous and unnecessary way of signifying that others have already tackled the topic in question. “Much ink has been spilled”, muse a thousand academics in a thousand different fields and on a hundred thousand different subjects. One would think there was an inexhaustible supply of the stuff, it being poured out with such reckless abandon.
Where does the expression come from? Does it have an English origin, or is it a translation for something else? In its original context, what was it meant to signify? Was it an allusion to the spilling of blood, perhaps? An extension of a metaphor that equates argument with warfare?
As I’ve no training in computational linguistics (nor in linguistics at all, for that matter), I hesitate to draw any conclusions from what I am about to say next. But I did run a couple of searches on the Google Ngram Viewer, and if you click on the image below you can enlarge the results of one such enquiry. You will note that this phrase was employed sporadically during the 19th century, but that its employment shot upwards rather dramatically in the 20th. The peak for the American spelling (“spilled”) was in the late 30s, while the British spelling (“spilt”) peaked about a decade earlier. After a haphazard series of further peaks and troughs, the phrase with its American spelling became popular once more. Indeed, as of 2013, the phrase is being used almost as frequently as it was in 1937.
I cannot imagine what might have initiated such a groundswell of popularity, be it anything other than the whimsical vicissitudes of personal taste. But as to the phrase’s origin, I have thus far been unable to find any English language material prior to a short article and a poem – both of which were published in 1805. The article is a review of Rev. Charles Daubeny’s “Vindiciae Ecclesiae Anglicanae”, which was published early that same year in the Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, and which was, itself, a somewhat scathing indictment of The True Churchman Ascertained, by John Overton (1804). At the close of 1805, The Christian Observer responded to Rev. Daubeny’s critique with a review of their own, and one that sought to find common ground between Rev. Daubeny and Mr Overton. The relevant passage, on p485, reads as follows:
On this chapter, in general, we shall only add, that, as is often the case after much ink has been spilt on both sides of the question, a Christian Observer will see room for mutual concession.
Here, the spilling of ink is a martial metaphor, designed to invoke the spilling of blood. That it need not be, however, is borne out by a poem printed in the same year. Found in the third volume of The Lounger’s Commonplace Book, or Miscellaneous Collections in History, Criticism, Biography, Poetry, and Romance, it is the creation of Jeremiah Whitaker Newman: a poet, raconteur and author of medical literature. The poem itself is on p244, and constitutes an ode to the (supposed) merits of matrimony. The relevant passage reads as follows:
That wedlock’s a pill one and all they cry out,
Of digestion so hard they make a great rout;
On the subject abundance of ink has been spilt.
I’ll swallow the pill if ’tis properly gilt.
Here we see that on a subject on which everybody is said to agree with one another, the spilling of ink denotes wastage and not warfare. That these two texts were both published in 1805 would demonstrate that the expression, applied differently in both of them, originates in neither.
[Be warned, fellow explorer, if you seek a passage prior to either of these, that Google has misfiled a 20th century text (the introduction to George Thornley's translation of "Daphnis and Chloe") as a 17th century text. While the translation itself was published in 1657, the introduction is by George Saintsbury, who was born in 1845.]
And so here, for me at least, the search ends. But oh – I would love so much to take it further! If only to unite these curious English applications of an insufficiently clear metaphor to the beautiful poetry of Midrash Tanchuma/Yelamdenu. First printed in Constantinople between 1520 and 1522, it is a collection of exegetical midrashim on the Torah, believed to have originated in the first half of the 9th century. Consider the following passage, in which sentiments are imputed to the 2nd century nasi, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, who here opines on the greatness of peace (Tanchuma, Tzav 7):
אמר רבן שמעון בן גמליאל, גדול הוא השלום, שהכתיב הקדוש ברוך הוא דברים בתורה שלא היו, אלא בשביל השלום. אלו הן. כשמת יעקב, ויראו אחי יוסף כי מת אביהם ויאמרו לו ישטמנו יוסף. מה עשו. הלכו אצל בלהה ואמרו לה, הכנסי אצל יוסף ואמרי לו, אביך צוה לפני מותו לאמר, כה תאמרו ליוסף אנא שא נא פשע אחיך. ומעולם לא צוה יעקב מכל אלו הדברים כלום, אלא מעצמם אמרו דבר זה. אמר רבן שמעון בן גמליאל, כמה דיו משתפך, וכמה קולמוסין משתברין, וכמה עורות אבודים, וכמה תינוקין מתרצעין ללמד דבר שלא היה, בתורה. ראה כמה גדול כח השלום
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: Great is peace, for the Holy One (blessed is He) allowed things that never occurred to be written into his Torah, only for the sake of peace. What are they? When Jacob died, “Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us?'” (Genesis 50:15, NRSV). What did they do? They went to Bilhah and they told her to go to Joseph and say to him, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers”” (Genesis 50:16-17, NRSV). Not once had Joseph instructed so much as a single matter in these words – they made these things up themselves! Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: How much ink has been spilled, how many quills have been broken, how many hides have been tanned, how many children have been caned, just to teach in the Torah something that never even happened! See how great is the power of peace!
This same drash is recorded in the name of the 4th century Palestinian sage, Rabbi Yehoshua of Sikhnin, a disciple of Rabbi Levi (Tanchuma, Shoftim 18). There, it reads as follows, with the relevant part attributed anonymously:
אמר רבי יהושע דסכנין בשם רבי לוי, ראה כמה גדול כח השלום, שאמר הכתוב שתים ושלש תבות בשביל השלום, ואלו הן, כשנסתלק יעקב אבינו, נתיראו השבטים, שנאמר, ויראו אחי יוסף כי מת אביהם ויאמרו לו ישטמנו יוסף וגו’, ויצוו אל יוסף לאמר אביך צוה לפני מותו לאמר, כה תאמרו ליוסף אנא שא נא פשע אחיך וגו’. ולא מצינו שיעקב אבינו צוה הדברים האלה, אלא הם אמרו מעצמן. אמרו חכמינו זכרונם לברכה, כמה קלמוסים משתברין, וכמה דיו משתפכין לכתב הדברים האלה שלא היו. ומפני מה, מפני השלום
Rabbi Yehoshua of Sikhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: See how great is the power of peace, for scripture recorded two or three words for the sake of peace, and they are these: when our father, Jacob, was taken up, the tribes were afraid – as it says, “Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us? … So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers”” (Genesis 50:15-17, NRSV). But we don’t find that our father Jacob ever said these things – they made these things up themselves! Our sages of blessed memory said: How many quills have been broken and how much ink has been spilled, to write these things that never happened! And why? For the sake of peace!
This same drash, concerning Joseph’s brothers and their legitimate lie, is also recorded in the name of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel in Leviticus Rabbah 9:9, Derekh Eretz Zutta 11:18, and – with a different emphasis – Yerushalmi Peah 1:1. It is also recorded in the name of Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon in Yevamot 65b, in which the Talmud declares that lying is permissible for the sake of maintaining peace (a stipulation recorded, mutatis mutandis in other places as well). In none of these other instances, however, do we find the expression that concerns the spilling of ink.
Notwithstanding the possibility that the expression’s employment in Tanchuma is not metaphorical, but is rather a figurative depiction of the amount of ink and the number of quills required to copy the Torah as many times as it has been copied, I wonder: is it possible that this expression made its way from Hebrew and, by however circuitous a route, into English? Do the two expressions share a common origin in another language of mutual impact? (The mind turns to Greek in this regard…)
Alternatively, is it possible that the connection between them is entirely coincidental, and that the nature of writing with a quill and an inkstand merely lends itself to such a poetic flourish? Modern Israeli academics who use the phrase are indebted to its English manifestation, although I hope that at least some of them are aware of its Hebrew pedigree. For now, however, it remains only to be noted that this particular literary trope, by virtue of its long-attested ubiquitousness, is probably more responsible than any other for the wastage of ink that it so decries.