While the nation anxiously awaited Thursday’s Supreme Court decision on President Obama’s health care legislation, many lay observers wondered just what was taking so long—after all, oral arguments finished in March. But in such a high-profile case, National Journal health care correspondent Margot Sanger-Katz explained, judicial writing takes a long time: “Justices are more likely to write in dissent, use rhetorical flourishes, or provide a detailed parade of horribles that will result from the majority’s view.”
That expression, “parade of horribles,” has special resonance in the legal world, typically as a put-down used by one side in a dispute to dismiss opponents’ concerns about a ruling’s negative effects. It even became the subject of a brief squabble among the Supreme Court justices during the “Obamacare” hearings. Lawyerly types in government use it, too: When the George W. Bush administration was setting the groundwork to invade Iraq a decade ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld prepared a memo listing all the possible things that could go wrong. His hawkish undersecretary Douglas Feith dubbed the memo “The Parade of Horribles.”
It’s easy to see why a phrase like “parade of horribles” would catch on, with its evocative and old-fashioned sound, invoking fear while at the same time mocking the source of that fear. But outside of legal and governmental circles, it’s an obscure expression, not yet registered in any major dictionary. Where you can find it, however, is marching down the streets of Gloucester this Fourth of July. Or the streets of Salem. Or Marblehead.
On Wednesday, continuing a 150-year-old tradition, “parades of horribles” will proceed through a number of New England towns, mostly clustered in Massachusetts’ North Shore. The parades involve local children and adults dressed in comic costumes, often poking fun at political figures and current events—it’s a spectacle that’s more charming than horrible, for the most part. So why is this Independence Day custom known this way, and how did that name then get adopted for such a different purpose—to describe the scare tactics of legal argumentation?
It all goes back to the country’s oldest military organization, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, chartered in 1638. Members of the company, colloquially known in the Boston area as “the ancients and honorables,” would parade around in uniform, though the dress code used to be a bit lax: Members could wear the uniforms of any regiments to which they were once attached. As a result, as Steven T. Byington explained in a 1940 article in the journal American Speech, “The variegated display of diverse uniforms on unathletic figures looked comic to a visitor who had not been brought up to reverence the Company’s high status.”
All the pomp and circumstance of the company was ripe for satire, and in the mid-19th century “the ancients and honorables” began to receive the burlesque treatment, with their name playfully transformed into “the antiques and horribles.” The first “antiques and horribles” parade that I can find mentioned in the newspapers of the time took place in Lowell on July 4, 1851. As the Boston Daily Atlas reported afterwards, the mock military company wore outrageously varied uniforms, featuring “everything that was grotesque and ludicrous.” As news got around, other towns were inspired to put on their own processions of “the antiques and horribles,” though the name was frequently shortened simply to “the horribles.”
Both the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, and the “horribles” that they inspired, persist in Boston-area festivities to this day. The company will be seen marching proudly through the streets of Boston this Fourth of July, in uniforms that are much more presentable than in the old days. And though the “horribles” parades no longer directly lampoon the ancients and honorables, this history continues to be a sore point. When I contacted Charles Fazio, interim curator of the company’s museum, he was in no mood to talk about the origins of the parade of horribles. “It was a slander against the Ancient and Honorable Artillery, and mostly done by wise guys and pundits who thought they were being funny,” he told me, unamused.
The targets of modern-day parade-goers are more likely to be names in the news, both locally and nationally. In Glocester, R.I., which has held an Ancients and Horribles Parade since the ’20s, the 1998 procession featured several people dressed up as Monica Lewinsky, and the 2006 parade mocked Dick Cheney’s hunting party. Sometimes the spoofs hit too close to home: The 2008 parade in Beverly was controversial for a float where young women satirized a spike in teen pregnancies by pretending to be pregnant. For many, though, the parades are an excuse for young and old to dress up in colorful costumes, a practice usually restricted to Halloween.
These not-so-horrible parades largely keep alive a quirky use of the word “horrible.” Though we think of it as an adjective, the word in fact had a long history in use as a noun to refer to a horrible thing or person—going all the way back to 1400, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. In the late 19th century, as the “horrible” parades were gaining popularity around New England, the expression “penny horrible” came to be used for a cheaply published violent novel, better known as a “penny dreadful.”
Given the vivid, poetic sound of “horribles” as a plural noun and the inviting idea that one could form a parade of them, it’s no surprise that the phrase made a leap into the realm of metaphor. The pioneer in using “parade of horribles” for rhetorical purposes was, fittingly, a New England man. Thomas Reed Powell was born in Richfield, Vt., in 1880 and went on to Harvard Law School, becoming a noted legal observer. One of his favorite expressions was “parade of imaginary horribles,” which appeared in his writing as early as 1921. In a 1944 article for The New York Times on the Supreme Court, he wrote, “From the beginning, dissenters have rebuked majorities for swerving from precedents and too often have indulged in a verbal parade of imaginary horribles foreseen as progeny of the new monster.”
That verbal parade continues to this day. The expression, and the scorn for the opposition that it carries, are holding strong in the legal world, much to the chagrin of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court’s foremost language kvetcher. In a 1990 law review article, Scalia listed “the familiar parade of horribles” as one of the “canards of contemporary legal analysis.” More often than not, Scalia feels, countering the doubts of dissenters as a “parade of horribles” is lazy reasoning: It’s still up to the writer of an opinion to explain “why all of the untoward results asserted to follow from the principle the court is adopting indeed do not follow.”
Scalia was on hand for the latest invocation of the “parade of horribles” at the Supreme Court, when the justices were hearing oral arguments over President Obama’s health care reform law in March. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wondered whether a “parade of horribles” would be unleashed if the court allowed challenges to the penalty faced by taxpayers refusing the individual mandate. Scalia responded by saying that there would be no “parade of horribles” as long as all federal courts are “intelligent” in managing further antitax litigation, though he seemed to doubt that they would be.
Ultimately, the decision to uphold the law did include a reference to “horribles,” if not a whole parade of them—showing how much this idea has come to stand on its own. In her concurring opinion released on Thursday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg referred to one fearful prospect of upholding the mandate, which Chief Justice John Roberts had raised—if the federal government can force you to buy health insurance, why not also other things, like broccoli?—as “the broccoli horrible.”
“The Broccoli Horrible” would make an excellent band name. It might even inspire a particularly ridiculous costume for a legal-minded New Englander marching in a local parade this Independence Day. But regardless, as judges continue to hash out whether various figurative “parades of horribles” are imaginary, it’s good to remember that the phrase is still quietly living a second life away from the courtroom. Indeed, it may be a tribute to our free-ranging American idiom that such independent paths are possible—that a single turn of phrase can bifurcate so radically, and yet, almost a century after the split, that two very different meanings can still peacefully coexist.
Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.