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.