5

One of Donald Trump's favorite rhetorical flourishes was (and perhaps still is) the wording "the likes of which X has [or have] never seen." While president, he used it on a number of memorable occasions. For example, in connection with his popular support (spoken at his inauguration in January 2017):

"You came by the tens of millions to become part of a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before."

In connection with North Korea's saber rattling in 2017:

"North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. ... They will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before."

In connection with protectionism in 2019:

"Because without tariffs, we would be absolutely, outside of something that I won’t even mention, we would be absolutely in a competitive disadvantage, the likes of which you’ve never seen."

And in connection with the prospective election of Joe Biden as president in 2020:

"This election is a choice between a Trump super-recovery and … a Biden Depression. You will have a depression the likes of which we have never seen outside, perhaps, 1929."

Expressions of this form have clearly been around for some time—although, as Peter Shor notes in an answer to the peripherally related question the likes of which has/have, the phrase seems originally to have used the singular like rather than the plural likes. Today, "the likes of which" (red line) appears to be somewhat more common than "the like of which" (blue line) in published works, to judge from the following Ngram chart, although Ngram indicates that the crossover occurred quite recently (in 1993):

I have two questions about this expression:

  1. When did "the like[s] of which X has [or have or had] never seen" first appear in print?

  2. When and under what circumstances did "the likes" appear in place of "the like" in the expression?

I will post the results of my own research as an answer beneath this post.

3 Answers 3

6

Early instances of (approximately) 'the like of which X has/have/had never seen'

Early English Books Online—which offers access to a database of books, pamphlets, and broadsides from the 1400s to 1700—finds no matches at all for "the likes of which." It produces six unique matches to a proximity search for "like of which" near "never" and "seen." They are as follows. From Ellis Hooks, "A Postscript to the Magistrates in and about the City of London," in The Quakers Acquitted from the Foul Aspersions of the Scandalous Libeller (1675):

There having lately been many vitious and obscene Pamphlets cried up and down the City tending greatly to the corruption and debauching the minds of young people, and particular these two most gross, lying, and abusive Libels, The one Intituled, The Quaker and his Maid, fictitiously framed by way of Dialogue; and the other, The Quaker turned Jew: We cannot but deem it your place so far to take cognizance of these and such-like filthy Pamphlets as to put a stop to them, it being a disgrace to this City that such things should be cried a∣bout, or spread to vitiate the minds of young people; and many sober people wonder that they are suffered to cry such things about this City: as for the said Dialogue, it is such a gross blasphemous and Atheistical Piece of Debauchery, wherein the Sacred Scriptures are blasphemously made use of in such abominable obscenity, the like of which was never seen or heard in Print, and so divulged in England, Wherefore we entreat you for the sake of Christianity, the worth of Souls, the Honour of this City Government, that you would please to put a stop to these and such abominable corrupting Pamphlets and Libels, it being your Places to give a Check to Vice, and to endeavour the prevention of such impious and scandalous Pamphlets for the future.

From a 1687 translation of Antonio Graziani, The History of the War of Cyprus:

The Infidels commonly disguise the State of their Affairs by spreading abroad Reports, which either encrease their Advantages, or diminish their Losses. But they could not at this time hinder the true News of their Defeat, from being universally known at Constantinople. The Inhabitants were struck with as great a Consternation, as if the Christians were entring their Gates. And (the like of which was never seen before) the Seraglio was no less alarmed than the Town, by the Lamentations and Tears of one of Selims Sisters, who bewail'd the loss of her Husband, and the Captivity of her two Sons.

From a 1688 translation of Garcilaso de la Vega, The Royal Commentaries of Peru:

His [Alonso de Alvarado's] Forces were in number seven hundred seventy five men, all good Souldiers well armed and richly clothed, and with great attendance, the like of which hath never been seen in Peru. And indeed it was no wonder they should be so, coming from the Mountain or Hill, which is the richest of any discovered as yet in this World.

From Philippe Avril, Travels into Divers Parts of Europe and Asia, Undertaken by the French King's Order to Discover a New Way by Land into China (1693):

The Women who are extremely reserv'd here [in Armenia], forgot the custom of their Country in some measure on that occasion: For being Transported with the same Zeal that mov'd Zachy, when he mounted on the wild Fig-Tree, they clamber'd upon the Lattices that are fix'd against the walls of our Garden, to behold that Edifying Ceremony, the like of which they had never seen. Indeed, I can affirm, that I never saw so comfortable a fight in my Life before, and the Tears of Joy which I spilt on that occasion, made me forget all the Sufferings we had undergone in the former Persecutions.

From Jane Lead, The Tree of Faith: or, The Tree of Life,: Springing Up in the Paradise of God (1696):

Then the Great Captain of the Ark of Faith, Christ Jesus, did steer the Ark, which with flying Wings did swiftly pass, and landed us in the New Paradise. Where we were received by the Divine Magus's, and Masters of the Faith, who understood the Mystery of all Miraculous Faith. This was a wonderful Place, the like of which I had never seen, for the Walks were all paved as with Transparent Gold, and several Temples were here, in which these Elders in Priestly Robes all glittering did pay their Homage to the Great and Mighty King, by whom they did work all their great Works, and give Existency to that which never had been.

And from Paul Rycaut, The History of the Turks from the Year 1678, to the Year 1699 (1700):

He [an ambassador from Persia] was Lodged, by Command of the Sultan, in that Magnificent Palace of Kara Mustapha, the late Vizier, which was richly Furnished for him; but there was no great need of any of the Turkish Moveables, for he had spread the Rooms with his own Rich Carpets, and other Coverings, the like of which had never been seen in the Ottoman Court.


Antecedents similar to 'the like of which X has/have/had never seen'

Ancestral versions of "the like of which X has/have/had never seen" go back more than 100 years earlier than Hooks's 1675 example. Here are nine instances from before 1655.

From a 1586 edition of Holinshed's Chronicles, volume 2 (1577/1586):

Of foules, such (I meane) as liue by preie, there are sundrie sorts in Scotland, as eagles, falcons,goshaukes, sparrowhaukes, marlions, and such like : but of water foules there is so greate store, that the report thereof may seeme to exceed all credit. There are other kinds of birds also in this countrie, the like of which is no where else to be seene, as the capercailie or wild horsse [?] greater in bodie than the rauen, and living onelie by the rinds and barks of of the pine trees.

From Anne Dowriche, The French Historie, That Is, A Lamentable Discourse of Three of the Chiefe, and Most Famous Bloodie Broiles That Haue Happened in France for the Gospell of Iesus Christ (1589):

"O Sir, but this request doth pierce my wounded hart, / Which gladly would forget again my woful countries smart. / For who can well displaie the treasons and the guiles, / The bloodie murders mercilesse, the snares and craftie wiles / Which France hath put in vre these thirtie yeeres and more, / The like of which in Christendome was neuer seene before?

From a 1600 translation of Antonio de Torquemada, The Spanish Mandeuile of Miracles. Or The Garden of Curious Flowers:

Anthonio. It is necessary to alleage many Authors, to giue credit to a thing so far out of all limits of reason, the like of which hath neuer been seene, or written of in the world: which if it be true, I would thinke it shoulde be some body buried before the floode: For in the first age I take it, that men vvere farre greater then they are nowe: but since the Deluge, neyther Nemrod, neither anie of those that helped builde the Tower of Babilon, neither any other Giant whatsoeuer, hath approched any thing neer this monstrous and excessiue hugenes of stature.

From a 1627 translation of Herman Hugo, The Siege of Breda:

Next the strange and vnaccustomed largenesse of the Works drawne about it, with the circuit of a double Trench, against the inward and the outward enemy, the like of which scarse any History hath left a memory behind it.

From Thomas Taylor, The Famine of the Word: A Treatise (by 1632/1653):

This was the state of this people, in their transportation by Salmanassar, but especially in that remarkable Plague by Titus and Vespasian, the like of which was never since the beginning of the World.

From Thomas Heywood, The Hierarchie of the Blessed Angells: Their Names, Orders and Offices (1635):

In the Councell of Basill certaine learned men taking their journey through a forrest, one of these Spirits int h shape of a Nightingall vttered such melodious tones and accents, that they were all amased, and stayed their steps to sit downe and heare it. At length one of them, apprehending that it was not possible that such rarietie of musicke could be in a bird, the like of which hee had neuer heard, demanded of it in the name of God, what or who it was.

From Richard Younge, A Counterpoyson: or, Soverain Antidote against All Griefe (1641):

When Rochel, like Samaria, had a strong enemy without, and a sore famine within ; how miraculously did God provide an evasion, by making the tyde their Purveyor, to bring them in an Ocean of shellfish? the like of which was never known before, nor since.

From John Cotton, Christ the Fountaine of Life: Or, Sundry Choyce Sermons on Part of the Fift Chapter of the First Epistle of St. John (1651):

Secondly, in the worshipping of God in those duties of the life of sanctification, you shall finde another combination of mixed affections, the like of which are not, and cannot be found in nature; and that is joy and feare, according to Psal. 2. 11. Serve the Lord with feare, and rejoyce with trembling.

From John Webster, Academiarum Examen, Or The Examination of Academies (1654):

A Chymist when he shews me the preparation of the sulphur of Antimony, the salt of Tartar, the spirit of Vitriol, and the uses of them, he teacheth me that knowledge which I was ignorant of before, the like of which no Logick ever performed : ...


Early instances of 'the likes of which X never ...' and related phrases

The earliest print instance of "the likes of" that a Google Books search yields is from Catherine Cuthbertson, Rosabella: or, A Mother's Marriage (1817), where the character who uses the wording is a "rustic" Irish coachman:

"Why, then, that's what we did!—and success to ourselves!—we saw two things, the likes of which we never seen before—a live emperor, and a grand duchess, coming from the Museum; but sorrow crown had they on their heads at all at all, ma'am: not even the crown of a hat had he; for that was off, to be making his obeisance to the shouting mob: ...

From Y., "The Fisherman's Legend," in The Irish Monthly Magazine of Politics and Literature (December 1833):

"Manetime the wicked king of the Danonians had sogers in waitin' for the Milasians, as they were comin' back to their ships that were lyin' in Ballinskellig harbour, an' as they were passin' through the gap of Dunlow, down comes the sogers, more than tin to one upon thim, an' there was a fight, the likes of which has not been seen since the times of Cromwell, bad luck to him.

From "The Death and Burial of Paddy Kelly. Esq." in Paddy Kelly's Budget; Or, A Pennyworth of Fun (January 22, 1834):

At six in the morning, Bob Farrell, with his sable myrmidons, made his appearance, and, to o Bob justice, poor Paddy must have felt mighty gratified at the snug manner he was boxed up in, and the gentility of the sirtout they put on him, the likes of which he never sported whilst alive.

And from Robert Allan, *The Sportsman in Ireland, with His Summer Route Through the Highlands of Scotland*, volume 1 (1840):

'Paddy Brady,' sis he, 'if you are secret, you'll come to no harm.'—'Faith, and I'll be the same,' sis I.—'Look down on the lake,' sis he. Oh, the wonderful sight!—the bottom of the lake, clear as day, was covered with skeletons of men, all alive and kicking. 'It's the skeletons of the race that spoke of the good people,' sis he ; 'and beware, Paddy Brady!' Hereupon begun a dance, the likes of which one wouldn't aisily see again, though Murphy, the dancing-master and piper, should try his hardest.

From L. Ruegg, "The Bride-Cake," in The Metropolitan (May 1845):

Truth, however, will compel us to state—especially since we have jet the reader into the gossip affecting Mr. Denison—truth compels us to state, that an accurate observer might have detected a little emotion in the countenance of the lady [Miss Norris] whenever Mr. Denison entered her shop,—that there was a little more cordiality in his reception—a little more hearty shake of the hand; though it was so little that few except those who were watching for such indications would have remarked them. Indeed, there was also a little more animation in her really pretty dark eyes, and occasionally, when alone, there was an abstractedness about her the likes of which she had never before exhibited; yet, as this might have been connected with matters of business, it is, perhaps, hardly fair to introduce it here.

From Albert Smith, The Natural History of the Ballet-Girl (1847):

With the music, the stage, and the lights still hạunting her senses she falls asleep; and perhaps dreams that she is a second Taglioni, and that foreign gentlemen, the likes of which have never been seen even in Leicester Square, are dragging her from the Theatre to the hotel, in her own carriage.

From Charles St. John, A Tour in Sutherlandshire, with Extracts from the Fieldbooks of a Sportsman and Naturalist, volume 1 (1849):

I called on the old Highland keeper who was then [in the author's youth] my attendant, and found him exactly on the same spot where I had seen him twelve years ago, winking at the morning sun in a manner peculiar to owls and inhabitants of cottages full of peat smoke. I doubted his recognizing me after so many years, but was much gratified at the pleasure and readiness with which he did so, and at the vivid recollection which he had of the corrie in which "my honour" had shot my first stag under his guidance and tuition—his tender inquiry too after my rifle, "the likes of which never put down a deer in the country."

And from "Horticultural Items," in the [Racine, Wisconsin] Wisconsin Farmer and Northwestern Cultivator (December 1849):

Thus prepared they [scions] may be sent thousands of miles with perfect safety, though several weeks in reaching their place of destination. If any of our friends wish scions from "that tree in the old orchard," the likes of which they never saw any where else, let them improve this winter in getting them on. They'll grow just so here, and no mistake. If no one else can make them grow, give us a chance to try them!


Conclusions

Constructions of the exact form "the like of which X has [or have or had] never seen" appear in print at least as early as 1693. Phrases that incorporate "the like of which" in much the same sense go back in print to at least 1585, and I would not be surprised to learn that the form is hundreds of years older than that in spoken English.

Phrases of the form "the likes of which X has/have/had never seen"—with the plural likes in place of the singular like—emerge in print no later than 1817. My research turned up eight relevant instances of "the likes of which" from before 1850. Of these, the earliest four—from 1817, 1833, 1834, and 1840—appeared in dialogue attributed to Irish speakers. The next two—from 1845 and 1847—appear in descriptive text by English authors writing about London; the next after that—from 1849—is attributed to an old Scottish Highlander; and the last—from very late 1849—appears in descriptive text in a magazine published in Wisconsin. Those results offer some circumstantial support for the thesis that "the likes of which" was originally an Irish provincialism that, by the end of the 1840s had spread into Britain and the United States.

1

From the Wikipedia entry on Anthropodermic bibliopegy, AKA books bound by human skin.

An early reference to a book bound in human skin is found in the travels of Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach. Writing about his visit to Bremen in 1710:

(We also saw a little duodecimo, Molleri manuale præparationis ad mortem. >>There seemed to be nothing remarkable about it, and you couldn't >>understand why it was here until you read in the front that it was bound >>in human leather. This unusual binding, the like of which I had never before seen, seemed especially well adapted to this book, dedicated to more meditation about death. You would take it for pig skin.)

— translated by Lawrence S. Thompson, Religatum de Pelle Humana

0

I don't think there is an answer to this question.

the like(s) of which X has/have never seen.

The clause is trivial. It is a simple collocation of words to express a general idea. Its form indicates early Modern English but there is no reason for it not to have appeared in Middle or Old English.

It is rather like asking for the origin of "That's a tall tree" or "Bigger than that."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.