Home > Current, Discourse, Language, Music, Politics, Sports > Hail “Hitler,” the Most Powerful Word in the English Language

Hail “Hitler,” the Most Powerful Word in the English Language

Just hours before this week’s meeting between the Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday Night Football, Hank Williams, Jr., the face of the program for twenty-two years– more than half its existence– was a guest on the Fox News program Fox & Friends, talking politics with the show’s hosts. Early in the interview, Williams referenced President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker John Boehner, and Ohio Governor John Kasich’s golf outing this summer, calling it “one of the biggest political mistakes ever.” Why? “It turned a lot of people off. . . . That’d be like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu.” Williams went on to clarify that Obama and Biden are “the enemy” and endorse Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain. At the end of the segment, Williams confirmed that he used “the name of one of the most hated people in all of the world to describe the President.” The discussion apparently transitioned to sports after that. The first portion of the segment:

Williams later apologized, saying his comment was “misunderstood”:

My analogy was extreme – but it was to make a point. I was simply trying to explain how stupid it seemed to me – how ludicrous that pairing was. . . . Working class people are hurting – and it doesn’t seem like anybody cares. When both sides are high-fiving it on the ninth hole when everybody else is without a job – it makes a whole lot of us angry. Something has to change. The policies have to change.

On Tuesday, he added:

I have always been very passionate about Politics and Sports and this time it got the Best or Worst of me. The thought of the Leaders of both Parties Jukin and High Fiven on a Golf course, while so many Families are Struggling to get by simply made me Boil over and make a Dumb statement and I am very Sorry if it Offended anyone. I would like to Thank all my supporters. This was Not written by some Publicist.

(HT: @jwg31)

After Williams made the analogy on the program, a lot of his rowdy friends (but not all of them) started to back away from him. ESPN, the network that currently airs Monday Night Football, announced that it would not run his opening segment before that night’s game. It is not clear when or whether broadcast of the segments will resume.

Adolf Hitler, the German leader who rose to power in the mid-1900s, presided over the Holocaust and directed Germany’s efforts in World War II is, for many, the human embodiment of evil, and his last name is perhaps the most common, universally understood shorthand reference to evil. A comparative study in vileness probably is unhelpful, at least here, and Hitler undoubtedly ranks near the worst of humanity’s worst, although there unfortunately are a number of options. It seems clear, though, that he is the most infamous terrible person of the terrible lot.

This may be due to our temporal proximity to his life– there are living veterans of WWII and living Holocaust survivors– but I don’t think so, and not just because we have seen evil leaders since Hitler’s death who failed to garner the same cache for evilness. Most all historical figures eventually become caricatures because it is too difficult to compress lives, often long and complicated, for later, disembodied understanding. What’s happened with Hitler seems to be different and rarer though, additionally notable because of the short time in which it has occurred. More (less?) than a label for a caricature, his name has become a word unto itself, or nearly so. “Hitler” has become a synonym for “evil,” not merely synonymous with it. Upon hearing the word, one does not think of the man or retrieve a mental image of his face; rather, one only thinks of the concept of evil, as if one had heard the word “evil.” Overuse has not cheapened or diminished the awfulness of the historical Hitler, as Jon Stewart argued. As the reaction to Williams’ analogy demonstrates, the strength of the reference persists, and the ease with which people can use “Hitler” illustrates the linguistic distance between the word and the man.

This separation is notable for its rarity (though not its exclusivity, cf. Ponzi), and for its extremity. With the probable exception of one other word, uttering “Hitler” is more likely to get you into hot water than anything else, particularly when used in a descriptive way, as discussed above.

The purpose of this post is not to humanize Hitler or justify uses of “Hitler” but to observe that his name has become a word, and indeed one of the most negative words in the English language. (Even writing publicly on the topic I am filled with the feeling that I need to include a sort of disclaimer like the preceding sentence.) Nor is the purpose to defend Williams– he just happens to be a recent, visible example– although his defenders, including the hosts of The View, certainly have viable arguments. See supra. All that’s left, then, is to invite you to share your thoughts, particularly on the word-usage issue, in the comment section below and look back at the genesis of the now-troubled marriage between Bocephus and Monday Night Football:

  1. AD
    October 6, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Today, ESPN announced its decision to terminate its relationship with Hank Williams, Jr.:

    “We have decided to part ways with Hank Williams, Jr. We appreciate his contributions over the past years. The success of Monday Night Football has always been about the games and that will continue.”

    Williams’ response:

    “After reading hundreds of e-mails, I have made MY decision. By pulling my opening Oct 3rd, You (ESPN) stepped on the Toes of The First Amendment Freedom of Speech, so therefore Me, My Song, and All My Rowdy Friends are OUT OF HERE. It’s been a great run.”

    The full story from NFL.com is here: http://www.nfl.com/news/story/09000d5d822e0002/article/espn-parts-ways-with-williams-jr-after-controversial-comments?campaign

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