‘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
occurrence!).

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
ilke.”

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.

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