As I’ve admitted in a previous post to having pedantic tendencies, I won’t apologise for them again today. In fact, snowed in and beleaguered by a power-cut as I am and having, at the time of writing, no hot water, no central heating and no means of obtaining hot drinks or cooking food (though mercifully I am sitting in front of a warm stove with a goodly supply of logs to burn and books to read), I have decided to treat myself to a bit of a Saturday rant.
Every so often, an expression that I particularly dislike seems to pop up with alarming frequency in the media. The one that I am thinking of at the moment is ‘the likes of’. It has been around for a long time and has always made me shudder. I associate it very much with certain annoying adults of my childhood who both used it and also perpetuated other hateful stereotypical sayings, such as ‘Had you thought of that?’ (thus indicating none too subtly that the speaker regarded himself or herself as of superior sense and intelligence) or, most heinous of all to me, ‘Yes, but…’ to any helpful suggestion that I might have ventured to make.
However, I had believed that use of ‘the likes of’ had been steadily waning in popularity for at least three decades. I had not encountered it much at all for ten years or so, until January this year. Now it seems to have resurfaced with a vengeance, like a virus that has lain dormant and suddenly been exploded back into life by some trick of the climate. The first occasion on which I noticed its resurgence was when Bradley Wiggins made his winning appearance at the BBC Sportspersonality of the Year Awards and said that he had never imagined that he would be standing there on stage with ‘the likes of’ the Duchess of Cambridge and the others with her. Among the rash of new incidences that have cropped up since then, a recent review by a well-known literary columnist referred to ‘the likes of Kafka’ and yesterday a newscaster on Radio 4, announcing bad weather warnings, spoke of ‘the likes of Oxford and Wales’.
Aside from the fact that to me it sounds more than a little derogatory, what exactly is meant to be conveyed by ‘the likes of’? Whom else besides the Duchess herself (pace Hilary Mantel) could possibly be described as ‘the likes of’ the Duchess of Cambridge? Who is the ‘like’ of Kafka, that most uncompromisingly individual of authors? Where are ‘the likes of’ Oxford and Wales, two distinctive geographical places, one a city, the other a country, which are not remotely like each other and neither of which, to my knowledge, resembles anywhere else? Is the expression supposed to liberate some kind of imaginative power in the listener, by inviting him or her to supply his or her own references to fill the implied gap? Thus I might think ‘this is like Kafka and Jeffrey Archer’ or you might think ‘this is like Oxford and Orkney’: all very confusing and not at all helpful.
What I’m attempting, I suppose, is to understand why the phrase exists at all. What does it add to the point that is being communicated? If Bradley Wiggins had said, ‘I never expected to be standing on stage with the Duchess of Cambridge and…’, would anything have been lost by the omission of ‘the likes of’? Would he not actually have come across as more gracious and complimentary? If the newscaster had simply said, ‘There are severe weather warnings for Oxford and Wales’, would our understanding of the message have been impaired by his not having included the rogue phrase?
Sometimes I’m a fan of redundant phrases. They can make what we say more graphic, more picturesque, even more nuanced and sensitive. But ‘the likes of’? Spare me! If the likes of you and me agree to boycott this nasty conjunction of three little words, perhaps we can start a fashion that will spread throughout the English-speaking world until, like smallpox, the expression has been completely eradicated. ‘Yes, but,’ you might say colloquially, ‘one day the likes of Bradley Wiggins is sure to emerge again. Had you thought of that?’