On “ilk” and its ilk

[Note: This post was updated on Sept. 8, 2021.]

Q: I was wondering if you could give me the current countries that use the word “ilk” (usage example: “my children = my ilk”). I know it is often used in the southern USA, but is it used in India, Ireland, etc.? Any information will be greatly appreciated.

A: English speakers don’t usually refer to their children as their ilk. In contemporary English, the noun “ilk” means type or kind, as in “He doesn’t trust bankers, brokers, and people of that ilk.”

That’s the way the word is defined in standard American and British dictionaries. And that’s how it’s used in the US, UK, India, Ireland, and elsewhere that English is spoken.

We’ve come to that conclusion after a search of dictionaries and newspaper archives in various countries.

The word “ilk” has had many other meanings since it first showed up in Old English in the 800s. But as far as we can tell, it’s never meant one’s offspring.

As an adjective, it once meant same or identical. And as a pronoun, it once meant the same person or the same thing. But those senses are now considered obsolete.

One older sense survives in Scottish English, where the pronoun means the place where someone, especially a member of the landed gentry, is from. So “Macquarie of that ilk” would be another way of saying “Macquarie of Macquarie.”

Although “ilk” is an ancient word, its modern sense of type or sort is relatively new. The earliest example of the usage in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from the late 1700s.

An etymology note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) says the modern sense of the word grew out of the Scottish usage.

American Heritage adds that the underlying meaning of the word reflects the obsolete sense of sameness in the Old English and Middle English versions of “ilk.”

“The ancestors of ilk, Old English ilca and Middle English ilke, were common words,” AH says, “usually appearing with such words as the or that, but the word hardly survived the Middle Ages in those uses.”

You’re probably wondering if the noun “ilk” is related to the noun “like,” as in “he and his like” … “gambling and the like” … “things of that like.” They certainly look alike. And the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the similarity is no coincidence.

Chambers points out that ilca, the Old English ancestor of “ilk,” combines the demonstrative i (that) and lic, the root of gelic, the Old English ancestor of “like.” In other words, both “ilk” and “like” are ultimately of the same ilk.

Here’s how these related nouns are used in modern English.

“Ilk” is commonly used with either “that” or a possessive: “Mr. Collins and his [or that] ilk” … “clergymen of that [or their] ilk.”

“Like” is used today with “the,” “that,” or a possessive:  “classical music and the like” … “things of that like” … “Star Wars and its like” … “Tennyson and his like.”  And it’s used informally in the plural: “diseases the likes of measles” … “there’s no one the likes of her.”

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