Friday, 29 November 2013

Attila the Hen

There's a cartoon called "Attila the Hen", which is of course a play on "Attila the Hun". But there is a connection between Hen and Hun. In his seminal article "Politics and the English Language", George Orwell speaks about politicians whose "prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse"

And a hackneyed phrase that is certainly, old, tired, and well past its sell by date is "to the right of Attila the Hun". But have you ever wondered where it came from? It is, in fact, a mid-20th century phrase from America, and of course, was used by individuals who knew virtually nothing about the real Attila the Hun. They were simply scraping around for a useful insult to fling at political opponents, the kind of "sound-bite" insult which sounds good, but doesn't really mean much. But who was it?

Barry Popik is a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, Dictionary of American Regional English, Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Yale Book of Quotations and Dictionary of Modern Proverbs. And he has a fascinating website all about words and phrases like this.

The original phrase seems to have been attributed to Senator Barry Goldwater, who in fact was a Republican Senator from Arizona from the 1950s to the 1980s, and during the 1960s was known as "Mr Conservative".

Goldwater rejected the "New Deal", and  crusaded against the Soviet Union, labour unions, and the welfare state. Precisely what the phrase was is unclear, but it seems to have been a variant of these:

"To the right of Ivan the Terrible/ Attila the Hun/ Genghis Khan"

Barry Popik finds sources for all three: The "Ivan the Terrible" version is cited  in print from 1961, the "Genghis Khan" version from 1965, and the "Attila the Hun" version from 1969, but it is hard to pin down when Goldwater used it, if ever.

The phrase also surfaced in 1973 with Governor Nelson Rockefeller who wanted a stronger drugs law. Legislators jokingly called it the "Attila the Hun Law," apparently referencing the law's invocation of a ruthless, barbaric masculinity, and indeed Rockefeller's rhetoric was full of macho posturing. And that's probably what you'll find wherever the cliché resurfaces.

Chris Colcord writing on "Individuality without Originality" mentions "Attila the Hun" as one of the clichés that is often brought about as elections draw near.

"In election years you'll hear other, done-to-death, super-obvious clichés brought out of mothballs and put back into the national conversation."

And he comments:

"I had exacting composition professors in college who would absolutely crucify students who tries to pass off clichés like these or other tired metaphors in their essays. They demanded originality from their students, believing that the only way writers can learn to write well is by forcing them to be distinctive. We were encouraged to learn from other writers, but the emphasis was always squarely placed on making our styles singular and unique. The professors had to suffer through a lot of immature, inchoate, rambling essays from young writers, but the process helped eventually establish a writer's true identity."

Unfortunately politicians rarely have to learn to be original, and there is a tendency, as Orwell noted for their speech to be full of "staleness of imagery" rather than "a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech"; it is, he says, an "invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases".

Mike Godwin, who introduced Godwin's Law, which predicted the inevitability of a Hitler or Nazi comparison arising during any online debate, also had something to comment on the use of "Attila the Hun". Like the entry of Hitler into debate, he notes that:

"It doesn't even really make sense to talk about Attila the Hun in terms of left/right politics, but when they talk about Attila the Hun - and they still do, from time to time - [they do so] without any clear sense of any historical context at all."

Who was the real Attila the Hun? He was the leader of a people called the Huns who conquered much of the Roman Empire during the 5th century. He and his followers were famous for their savagery and for destroying the civilised society built up by the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire, if anything, was the bastion of Conservatism, but the Huns were anything but.


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