Q: Here’s a construction that’s widely used by radio hosts, though it’s not yet epidemic: “the (insert plural name of a singular individual) of the world.” For example, “the Babe Ruths of the world.” My complaint is that there are no multiple Babe Ruths. I get the intention, but it bugs me to hear a big internal contradiction in such a little phrase.
A: Like many idiomatic usages, this one isn’t meant to be taken literally. We’d never make our beds if we actually had to build them from scratch.
You seem to think the idiom you’ve heard on talk radio is a relatively new phenomenon, but the construction first showed up in the mid-1800s, well before Marconi got his first patent for transmitting radio waves.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes the usage as colloquial (that is, more common in speech than written English), and defines it this way:
“With a personal name, in the plural. the — — of this world: people considered to represent or be like the type specified. Also in extended use with other proper names. Freq. somewhat derogatory.”
The earliest example of the usage in the OED is from the September 1897 issue of the North American Review: “The Mrs. Siddons’ or Rachels of the world have gained a fame to which even Garrick and Booth cannot approach.”
(The references are to British and American actors: Sarah Siddons, Elisabeth Rachel Félix, David Garrick, and Edwin Booth.)
We’ve found several earlier examples dating from the 1850s.
An article in the January 1854 issue of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, for example, calls for “bringing prominently forward the peaceful heroes of art and meditation, the Newtons, the Shakespeares, the Miltons of the world.”
The most recent citation in the OED is from Do You Remember the First Time, a 2004 novel by Jenny Colgan: “Why should fashion belong only to the Britneys of this world, goddamit?”
As you’ve noticed, the usage is still around. We got more than 50,000 hits when we googled “the Kardashians of the world,” including this one from the May 17, 2013, issue of the Washington Times:
“These days, tabloid sales are fueled by persistent paparazzi and their photos of the Kardashians of the world in compromising situations.”