The broccoli horrible

« previous post | next post »

I was first struck by the expression "parade of horribles" back in April 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama used it to describe testimony by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker about what might happen if U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq too hastily. I wrote a Language Log post about it, tying it to another expression that was in the news at the time: "false terribles," used by Rob Lowe to describe things that his nanny accused him of doing. "False terribles" turned out to be pretty much a one-off, but "horribles," usually of the parading variety, have shown up again and again in legal discussions, most recently in the Supreme Court's health care decision on Thursday — which featured, in Justice Ginsberg's pungent opinion, a "broccoli horrible" (referring to the slippery-slope argument that if government can make you buy health insurance, they might someday make you buy broccoli, too).

For a full explanation of how the legal putdown took shape, read my latest Boston Globe column (online now, in print on Sunday). I trace how "the parade of horribles" emerged as a satirical Independence Day tradition in mid-19th century New England, then made the metaphorical jump into discussions of judicial argumentation c. 1921, thanks to the legal scholar Thomas Reed Powell. Since then, the expression has lived a double life: with various shore towns in Massachusetts and Rhode Island keeping the actual "parades of horribles" going, and lawyers and judges debating over figurative ones. Fortunately, I was able to get The Broccoli Horrible into the column under the wire, noting that it would make a pretty awesome band name.

[Update, 7/4: For further documentation, see my followup Word Routes column.]


  1. Jeff Carney said,

    June 30, 2012 @ 12:44 am

    Nice article. It took me a minute to distinguish the concept from "slippery slope" but I get it now. I'm reminded of all the "terrible" things that might be permitted if gay marriage is permitted. They don't form a causal chain but seemingly come all at once. Shocking!

  2. Robert Coren said,

    June 30, 2012 @ 10:25 am

    As soon as I saw the phrase "parade of horribles" I thought of next Tuesday's event in Gloucester, but I see you're way ahead of me.

  3. Sili said,

    June 30, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

    (referring to the slippery-slope argument that if government can make you buy health insurance, they might someday make you buy broccoli, too).

    Why not just subsidise broccoli the way corn is?

    I thought a parade of horribles was what you had on the way to the bonfire of vanities.

  4. Dan T. said,

    June 30, 2012 @ 6:10 pm

    Maybe they'll make you marry broccoli next.

  5. EndlessWaves said,

    June 30, 2012 @ 7:35 pm

    I prefer the Cauliflower Terrible. Both, presumably, from the same farm as the grapes of wrath.

    There are several phrases of this form, "March of the Idiots", "Ship of Fools" etc., do you think there was an original that has inspired the rest or is it a concept that's easily invented and communicated?

  6. Robert Coren said,

    July 1, 2012 @ 7:02 pm

    And now, having read the Globe column, I have a minor, not to say insignificant, correction to offer: You refer to July 4th parades in various North Shore towns, but the Gloucester Horribles parade is, as always, on July 3rd.

  7. Cameron Majidi said,

    July 2, 2012 @ 9:34 am

    There was a band in the late 60s called The Driving Stupid whose best-known song rejoiced in the immortal title "Horror Asparagus Stories".

  8. TomV said,

    July 4, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

    I haven't read Mad Magazine in years, but this reminds me of their occasional cartoon features (by Phil Hahn and the usual gang of idiots) on "horrifying cliches", eg: tripping the light fantastic/tripping the heavy fantastic.

  9. James Abugah said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 10:15 am

    Politician are known to come up with interesting terms to describe issues. I can remember terms like 'axis of evil', 'the mother of all wars', 'he or her', "they misunderestimated me." Sometimes I wonder if it is deliberate or an issue of challenge with the language.

  10. Chandra said,

    September 11, 2012 @ 3:58 pm

    Way late to the game, but can't resist contributing this image to the discussion:


RSS feed for comments on this post