Discussions about eggcorns and related topics
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Chris -- 2011-03-08
I came across a double-barreled substitution in a book I’m reading. In Liaisons of Life, Tom Wakeford points out that Pasteur’s germ theory of disease was transposed holus-bolus to social theory. Pasteur, a reactionary French monarchist, may himself have been the author of this transposition. The French scientist wrote: “Let the mob take Paris and without the King or Emperor to shore us up we would dissolve into aimless bodies no different from the mob; let the bacterial mob take our physical body and we would decay into a putrefying bacterial mass no different than the attackers.” During the first World War, notes Wakeford, sections of the British press took to calling the Germans “GermHuns,” calling for the eradication of the invading Teutonic plague.
Since it is a pun, “germ” + “hun” for “German” does not qualify as an eggcorn. For speakers who miss the pun, however, it may have become what we have called a “rotten eggcorn.”
Calling Germans “Huns” is not, when you think about it, a very accurate appellation. The Huns were warlike Asiatic nomads who, under their leader Attila, sacked Rome in the fifth century. They probably spoke some variant of Mongolian or Turkic. The modern Germans were represented during the period of the Hunnic ascendancy by the Goths. The Teutonic Goths were sometimes enemies and sometimes allies of the conquering Huns.
The OED suggests that the figurative use of Huns for Germans was actually a German initiative. It began, the dictionary proposes, with a speech delivered by Wilhelm II to the German troops about to sail for China on 27 July 1900. The London Times reported the speech:
According to the Bremen Weser Zeitung the Emperor said that “no quarter will be given, no prisoners will be taken. Let all who fall into your hands be at your mercy. Just as the Huns a thousand years ago, under the leadership of Etzel (Attila) gained a reputation in virtue of which they still live in historical tradition, so may the name of Germany become known in such a manner in China that no Chinaman will ever again even dare to look askance at a German.”
Not quite sure what “reputation in virtue” the German Emperor was referring to. The historical Huns are represented negatively in English language sources. When the British press used to refer to Margaret Thatcher as “Attila the Hen,” it was not a compliment.