Challenging Word of the Week: ilk

(ilk) noun

The common use of ilk is in the phrase of that ilk, and, correctly employed, has a distinctly limited use. It applies properly only when the surname of a person is the same as the name of his estate or the place he’s from. In a series of letters to The Times (London), Sir Iain Moncreiffe, of Easter Moncreiffe, Perthshire, signed himself “Iain Moncreiffe, Of That Ilk,” meaning “Iain Moncreiffe of Moncreiffe.” Quoting from British English, A to Zed (Facts on File, 1987) by this author:

A friend of the author named Hector Cameron was a Cameron of Cameron, and once announced himself over the telephone as ‘Cameron of that ilk.’ The uneducated (at that time) author, to his shame, ascribed it to drink. There are MacDonalds of that ilk (MacDonalds of MacDonald), Guthries of that ilk (Guthries of Guthrie) and so on. From a Sassenach misunderstanding of usage, ilk has acquired the meaning ‘sort’ or’kind’; used generally in a pejorative sense: Al Capone, and people of that ilk, or even (heaven forfend!) Freudians (or communists, etc.) and their ilk.

The use of ilk is now expanded to include “family,” “class,” or “set” as well as “kind.” Fowler says of ilk:

This SLIPSHOD EXTENSION has become so common that the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) Supp(lement) was constrained to add to its definitions ‘also by further extension, often in trivial use, — kind, sort.’

The COD (Concise Oxford Dictionary) calls it “vulgar.” Ilk is, via Middle English ilke, from Old English ilca. Incidentally, the adjective Sassenach mentioned above is defined in British English, A to Zed as follows:

From the Gaelic for Saxon, an opprobrious term used by Scots, and sometimes the Irish as well, to designate and derogate the English.

My example: While we might figuratively lump all fast food brands into a common group, grammatically only the red-headed clown can accurately describe himself as “Ronald McDonald of that ilk.”

From the book, “1000 Most Challenging Words” by Norman W. Schur, ©1987 by the Ballantine Reference Library, Random House. I post a weekly “Challenging Words” definition to call more attention to this delightful book and to promote interesting word usage in the blogosphere. I challenge other bloggers to work the current word into a post sometime in the coming week. If you manage to do so, please leave a comment or a link to where I can find it. Previous words in this series can be found under the appropriate Category heading in the right-hand sidebar.

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