Archive | January, 2011

The changing language of US presidents

25 Jan
Seal of the President of the United States

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There’s a fabulous article on the BBC News website today, showing the changing popularity of certain words in the President’s State of the Union speech between 1790 and the present day.

The big winner is ‘we’; presidents have used it more and more in the 20th century to stress inclusivity.  The big loser is ‘public’, which has declined greatly in frequency.

One thing that did catch my eye was that ‘United States’ has quite clearly lost out to ‘America’.  Not only is the latter simpler and more catchy, but I guess (and I don’t know) that in the early dates, there was more of an emphasis on the union of all the different states into one country, something noone cares about anymore.

Check the article out for yourself; it’s fascinating!


The fly in the ointment

23 Jan
Titlepage and dedication from a 1612-1613 King...

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In October last year, I played the birthday card and persuaded my husband to give up his Friday night to accompany me to the ‘Warwick Words’ festival to see David Crystal talk on the King James Bible.

It was an evening of warmth, wit and insight – much like the many brilliant books David Crystal has written.   He’s a fantastic presenter, and even my husband, who has no particular interest in the English language or the King James Bible (the subject of the talk), thoroughly enjoyed the session.

In his talk, David debunked some of the myths around the King James Bible – that it is the ‘DNA’ of our English language.  The influence of the King James Bible, he argued, is not in the grammar, syntax, vocabulary or spelling of English.  Instead, he claims that where it is influential is in the use of idiom – ‘the fly in the ointment’, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’, ‘a man after my own heart’, a ‘two-edged sword’, ‘pearls before swine’ and many, many more.

Here’s a list of those idioms from

But as David went on to explain, there are surprisingly few idioms truly original to the King James Bible.  Many had actually appeared in earlier versions of the Bible, and I think (and I may have misremembered) that David counted only 18 idioms that could first be traced to the King James version.

There’s a great interview with David on (and it’s great to see him on this site as he is one of my icons!)

David’s also written an article for the Oxford English Dictionary site on this topic.

Finally, here’s David’s book Begat on the King James Bible.  I haven’t read it – but if it’s like any of the many other books of his I have read, it’s bound to be a delight.

‘Of that ilk’

19 Jan
An antique map of England and Wales by John Ca...

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I heard the phrase ‘of that ilk’ used over the Christmas period to describe
a landed family.  My hazy memory suggests it was used about the Montcrieffs, a
Scottish family.  As they happen to live in a place called Montcrieff,
rather than describe them as the ‘Montcrieffs of Montcrieff’, we refer to
them as ‘Montcrieff of that ilk’.

It’s a curious little phrase and my even more hazy memory of the
Anglo-Saxon I studied at university made me think that it was a very old
phrase indeed.

The good news is that my memory did me proud (an increasingly rare

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the written records of what happened in every
year, first use the word ‘ilk’ (or ilce as it’s written) in conjunction
with the year 755.  Unfortunately, I can’t write the phrase in full as WordPress
can’t replicate the Anglo-Saxon alphabet!

The word simply means the ‘same’ or ‘identical’ – so you see a lot of
phrases in Anglo-Saxon such as ‘on this ilke day’ (on the same day).   This
usage continued in Middle English – a Caxton translation of de Voragine’s
Golden Legende from 1483 cites “That the ylke god shold be blessyd.”

But the usage of ‘ilk’ did change over time.  The sense of ‘same’ or
‘identical’ was gradually lost.  One of the earlier related meanings – ‘at
that exact moment’ – did continue until at least the 17th century; the last
citation comes from a Robin Hood tale of c. 1650: “Downe she came in that

The usage quoted in my first paragraph – “the Montcrieffs of that ilk” – is
last quoted in the OED in 1860 –  “A canon and two choristers sent from St.
George’s to the hospital of that ilk”, although me hearing it over
Christmas suggests it has lasted until at least the 21st century.

But it’s another usage of ‘ilk’ that seems to have survived most strongly
into the present day, a usage that OED describes as ‘erroneous’.

It seems that people misunderstood the meaning of ‘Montcrieffs of that
ilk’, and extrapolated ‘ilk’ to mean ‘type’ or ‘sort’.

Here we see the phrase used in this context in 1845: “Mr. Hume, or Mr.
Roebuck, or any member of that ilk” and again in 1973, “One doesn’t like or
dislike a fellow of that ilk.‥ He was a kind of barrow boy in a shop.”

It’s a fascinating 1,200 year long journey for what was an extremely commonplace, ordinary word, but now seems to be dropping out of usage.