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Likeness

Q From Barrie Street, Canada: Will you kindly let me know how (and why) the phrase a likeness of originated, in lieu of is a photograph of. The term seems to be used all the time in newspapers.

A It goes back a lot further than photography, that’s certain — about a thousand years further back, in fact.

The word was being used to describe a thing that resembled another even before the first Millennium (it appears in its Old English form in the Lindisfarne Gospels, for example). We still use the word in the sense of resemblance when we say things like the family likeness is astonishing.

At about the same time, the word could also mean a thing created as a representation of something else, a copy of an object perhaps. It could also refer to an image of a person, such as a painting or a statue. By the seventeenth century, it had become common to use likeness when you meant a portrait. The verb phrase to take a likeness for painting a portrait seems to have first appeared in the eighteenth century. Here’s a latish example, from Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens: “The demeanour of that gentleman at first suggested to her mind that he might be a taker of likenesses, so intently did he look at her, and so frequently did he glance at the little note-book by his side”. It was inevitable that the term would be extended to refer to the new-fangled photographs.

However, current usage seems to differ between Britain and North America. Here in Britain, when a likeness of appears, which it doesn’t that often, it almost always refers to a medium other than photography (statue, artist’s impression, cartoon) in which skill is involved in matching the representation to the original. The application to photographs seems to be more common in the USA and Canada, though not hugely so, to judge by the limited investigations I’ve been able to make of newspaper archives.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 18 Aug. 2001

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 18 August 2001.