Monthly Archives: October 2009

Of That Ilk

An elk (sorry)

Have just been handed Lord Salisbury’s rather unflattering review in the Spectator of Lawrence James’ book, Artistocrats. Bob Salisbury, being descended from confidantes of Elizabeth I, knows a bit about the history of the ruling class. But, while the review is a great read (particularly for the unmissable last sentence of the second paragraph), it was Salisbury’s use of ilk in the antepenultimate* paragraph which caught Ety’s eye.

You see ilk is a word of refined heritage. Once upon a time, ilk was a word rarely used by anyone outside the Scottish ruling classes because of its solfunctory meaning. To be ‘of that ilk‘, until the 18th century at the earliest, meant to be of the same place as your name. So, if you were the Duke of Edinburgh and actually lived there, you could choose to sign off letters with the clumsy


Edinburgh, of Ediburgh.”

Or you could choose the far more distinguished

“Edinburgh, of that ilk.”

The word ilk comes from the Old English ilka and Middle English ilke, but basically means ‘same’. So it’s a bit like saying ‘Edinburgh, of the same’.

So when you hear ‘of that ilk‘ to mean ‘of that sort of thing’, then you’re witnessing the return of a word to its etymological origins after centuries wandering the deserts of strangely specific meaning alongside the British aristocracy.


*Yep, antepenultimate. Whaddaword.


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Having serious problems thinking of a word which means ‘having only one use, purpose or function’. Anyone have any ideas?

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Notice anything odd about the word tmesis? Seen any other words that start ‘tm‘ lately? Ety’s pretty sure there aren’t any others (suggestions in the comments please).

Tmesis was a Greek noun or gerund, meaning ‘a cutting’. It was related to the verb, temnein (to cut).

From tmesis you get a nice little collection of modern English words, many of which are scientific but still commonly known. So, there’s a hysterectomy, meaning ‘cutting out the womb’ (Gk for womb: hysterikos*), appendectomy and a whole lot of other -ectomies.

Then there’s the atom, which upon its discovery was regarded as the ultimate building block, the only indivisible (or uncuttable) thing in existence. A-tom; non-cut.

Finally – and here’s the one Ety likes most – the word we English speakers get most directly from tmesis is… tmesis.

Tmesis in its modern English form, you’ll be pleased to know, means ‘the cutting of a word and sticking another one in the middle’. Like abso-bloody-lutely.

Bet you didn’t know there was a word for that.


*Yes, it’s where we get hysterical, because hysteria was caused by the presence of the womb, obv.

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Watching the news of a pretty amazing Saxon hoard in Staffordshire, England (or, in earlier days, Mercia) has made Ety think of some other Saxon heritage.

One fun thing that the Saxons did was to pronounce the letters ‘sc‘ the way we would pronounce ‘sh‘.

So, for a start, from the Greek word episkopos (a sort of elder or supervisor, which was how early Christians described the church leaders in cities like Ephesus or Rome) we get the Late Latin episcupus. Take off the ‘e‘ and the ‘us‘ and you’re close to the Old English word bisceop. And of course, if you were a Saxon, how would you have pronounced bisceop? See what they did there?

But that’s not where the fun ends. We’ve also got our own Saxon hoard of words which have interchanged ‘sc‘ and ‘sh‘. Ask yourself this:

What do you call a bunch of fish together? A shoal or a school?

Why is a ship run by a skipper?

Why is the land’s shape described as a landscape?

Is it possible to look both scabby and shabby?

You won’t see that lot stuck in an exhibit.


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