When is the same kind not the same kind?

There are many words that have meant one thing, have come to be used mainly in one way, and through misgrasping of their common mode of appearance have gained a different common sense. Internecine is one such, a word originally meaning ‘devastating, very destructive, killing many’ but, through misunderstanding of its inter – used in this case as an intensive in Latin – come to be understood as ‘mutually destructive’. Prodigal is another, thanks to the parable of the prodigal son; its original and still occasional use is ‘lavish’ or ‘extravagant’, but now most users think it means ‘wayward’. And of course thou, originally a familiar pronoun applied to individuals of equal or lesser status, has – through persisting only in Biblical and poetic contexts – come to be seen by many as a particularly exalting term of address.

Well, ilk is another of that ilk.

We don’t use ilk often these days, but when we do, it’s nearly always in phrases such as all of his ilk or others of their ilk or with an adjective inserted, such as his ideological ilk or her communist ilk or their libertarian ilk. And nearly always it has a rather dim tone to it, conveying disapproval or even disgust. It’s like kind (as in of that kind) but rather less kind. I’m tempted to suspect that echoes of ill and yuck and perhaps bilk (but, I guess, not milk) have some influence, but I have no data to support that (nor any to negate it either, though).

Knowing that sense, I was just slightly confused when I picked up a book some years ago (U and Non-U Revisited) and saw, as one of its contributors, Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk. 

Erm… of which ilk? Was this some kind of in-joke or winking reference to something opaque to me?

In fact, it turned out I had stumbled unawares on the phrase that had been the pivot in the usage of ilk. Historically, ilk did not mean ‘type’ or ‘group’ or ‘family’. It came from Old English ilca, which in turn drew on the same root as gave us like, and it meant ‘same’. And it became standard usage among the Scottish landed gentry that those who shared their name with the place they were from were “of that ilk.” So Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk was Sir Iain Moncreiffe of Moncreiffe. Meaning he was from the family that basically owned the place. Sort of like Lord Revelstoke of Revelstoke Parish.

But people saw of that ilk and took it to mean ‘of that family’ – in other words, Sir Iain Moncreiffe of the Moncreiffe family, you know, the Moncreiffe family, that one. Sort of like if someone were talking about someone named Trudeau and said “Yeah, those Trudeaus.” And from that, by the mid-1800s, ilk had come to be used to mean ‘family’ or ‘class’ or ‘kind’ or ‘sort’ and no longer to mean ‘same’. And somehow – perhaps by sound echoes; perhaps because that as in that one and of that ilk can tend to have a more negative tone than, say, the as in the one and of the ilk due to established usage patterns that I’m not going to try to explore here; perhaps because of attitudes towards the landed gentry; or perhaps for whatever other reasons you may imagine – it came to have a generally (though not quite universally) negative tone.

So ilk has become prodigal – extravagant in having two differing senses, and also wayward – but not internecine. When I said “ilk is another of that ilk,” I meant ‘another of the same’ but you likely read it as meaning ‘another of the kind’; however, it communicated equally well and had the same referent… except not entirely, because you probably saw a negative tone that, in the original sense, it didn’t have (in a way, mirroring the positive tone thou has gained). And thus of that ilk and of that ilk are the same kind… and not the same kind.

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