Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Celebrating the Fourth with a "Parade of Horribles"

Hot dogs, fireworks, pie-eating contests... the Fourth of July is the same all around the United States, right? Not quite: some Independence Day traditions are more localized. Take "the parade of horribles," a peculiar procession that you can find in various New England shore towns. Even more peculiarly, "the parade of horribles" has become a legal metaphor, one that made an appearance in the Supreme Court's healthcare ruling last week.

My latest Boston Globe column takes a look at the transformation of "the parade of horribles" from a local satirical custom to a term bandied about by lawyers and judges. Though I'm not from the region, as a Globe columnist I do feel obliged to investigate New England's contributions to the lexicon, and "parade of horribles" is a nice example of an expression that began parochially but then transcended its regional borders.

"Parades of horribles" began in the mid-19th century and can still be found in towns from Gloucester, Massachusetts to Glocester, Rhode Island. (The Rhode Island town misplaced the "u" at some point.) The parades are excuses for locals to get dressed up in silly costumes and poke fun at those in power — reminiscent of carnivalesque satires in various other parts of the world. The original target of the satire was the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts, with "the ancients and honorables" transmogrified into "the antiques and horribles." The earliest such spoof that I was able to find was in Lowell, Mass., in 1851. Here is how the local newspapers reported on the preparations in Lowell and the parade itself:

The Antique and Horribles meet for drill at the Phalanx Armory to-night. The Governor, whose duty it will be to commission the officers on the Common, has not yet been elected — but he will be duly installed into office before the 4th. It is said that Wm. F. Johnson, the comedian, is the leading candidate. From his known ability, his experience, and the soundness of his creed, it would seem that he is admirably qualified, and will discharge the gubernatorial duties in a manner that could not be approached by his present Excellency, Gov. Boutwell. — Lowell Courier. (Boston Herald, June 21, 1851)

The "Antique and Horrible" Artillery Company of Lowell, Mass., are coming out on the morning of the 4th, with a cannon composed of a pistol mounted on a big pair of stone wheels, and drawn by an ox team! (Brattleboro, Vt. Weekly Eagle, June 30, 1851)

There will also be a military parade. Among other companies which will be out on the occasion, is the Antique and Horrible Company, whose fantastic dresses will afford considerable amusement. (Amherst, N.H. Farmer's Cabinet, July 3, 1851)

The parade and review of the "Antique and Horribles" was the principal feature of the days. The review was witnessed by large numbers, with great pleasure and profit. (Boston Evening Herald, July 5, 1851)

In the morning there were some mock military displays. The "Antique and Horrible Artillery,"were under command of Capt. J. G. Peabody, who appeared in a venerable coat, said to have been worn at the battle of Bunker Hill. The company numbered about seventy-five, and no two had uniforms alike; there were high crowned hats and low crowned hats; long tailed coats and strait jackets; long guns and short guns; and everything that was grotesque and ludicrous. (Boston Daily Atlas, July 7, 1851)
The principle feature of the morning was the parade of the "Antique and Horrible Artillery Company," a burlesque on the Ancient and Honorable corps of Boston. They numbered about 13 men, and their appearance was the most unique and fantastical imaginable. No two members of the corps were uniformed in any respect alike…Others were equipped and uniformed in garments of the most ancient and ridiculous patterns which it is possible to conceive. (Gloucester Telegraph, July 9, 1851)

Independence in Lowell. In the forenoon there was a parade of the "Antiques and Horribles," whose name is remarkably characteristic of the drill and appearance of the company… The company "played out the play" in a very animated manner. (Amherst, N.H. Farmer's Cabinet, July 10, 1851)

The Lowell festivities must have made a big impression, as over the coming years "parades of horribles" spread around New England and beyond. By the turn of the twentieth century, "horribles" parades could be found in places as far-flung as Reno, Nevada and Prince Edward Island, Canada. The "horribles" boom faded during the early twentieth century, however, only hanging on in coastal Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

But as the real parades lost their popularity, metaphorical parades were on the rise. For this we can thank Thomas Reed Powell (1880-1955), a legal scholar who grew up in Vermont. (Peter R. Teachout, a law professor at the University of Vermont who is writing a biography of Powell, assured me that Powell would have known about the "horribles" tradition. He found a newspaper account of such a parade in Burlington when Powell was attending the University of Vermont from 1896 to 1900.) Powell first used "the parade of horribles" as a figure of speech in 1921:

He [Justice McKenna] would not convert his parade of imaginary horribles into a line of authoritative precedents in favor of the constitutionality of all sorts of legislative monstrosities. ("Major Constitutional Issues in 1920-1921," Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 3, Sep. 1921, pp. 469-500)

The "parade of imaginary horribles" would return again and again in Powell's writings as a scholar at Columbia and Harvard law schools:

A parade of the imaginary horribles of the maximum-wage law and the price-fixed grocer may be diverting, but it will leave most of the spectators quite unterrified. ("The Judiciality of Minimum-Wage Legislation," Harvard Law Review, Vol. 37, No. 5, Mar. 1924, pp. 545-573)

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. It is a common debating trick to say that if you go thus far you must go much farther, but every lawyer knows that many cases go on narrow grounds and that many fine lines of distinction are drawn. ("Our High Court Analyzed," New York Times Magazine, June 18, 1944, p. 17)

Powell's putdown for the litany of ill effects that could attend a particular ruling became a popular one in legal circles. Justice Antonin Scalia has made his displeasure known about the invocation of the "parade of horribles," which he considers to be one of the "canards of contemporary legal analysis." Concerns about judicial consequences shouldn't just be waved away with this expression, Scalia has argued.

It was Scalia who raised one such "horrible" during the oral arguments for the Supreme Court case on the Affordable Care Act. Questioning Solicitor General Donald Verrilli about the scope of the Constitution's "commerce clause," Scalia said:

Could you define the market—everybody has to buy food sooner or later, so you define the market as food, therefore everybody is in the market; therefore you can make people buy broccoli.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts brought up the same hypothetical involving the government forcing people to buy broccoli. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, while concurring with the majority opinion, strongly dissented on the limitations Roberts put on the commerce clause as it applies to the ACA's individual mandate, and she specifically took issue with what she called "the broccoli horrible." It's a phrase that is destined for legal immortality, and it's good to know how colorfully costumed New Englanders parading on the Fourth of July gave rise to it.

Click here to read more articles from Word Routes.

Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.