New Huns

In Arnold Bennett’s 1927 novel, The Strange Vanguard (or in America, just The Vanguard), a forthright multi-millionaire talks about his immense wealth:

People call me one of the new Huns, because I’m so darned rich. Well, I can’t help it. What could I do? I couldn’t refuse my royalties or the interest on my investments. Silly! I couldn’t burn the money [….] I do a bit of charity, because I’m afraid not to. But I hate it. I don’t believe in it. It only does harm. Some of the New Huns spend their money on social schemes and charity because they’re ashamed of being rich and they want to dope their consciences. I haven’t a conscience…

This phrase ‘the New Huns’ is new to me. I’ve come across (mostly immediately postwar) texts in which war profiteers are compared to Huns, but Bennett’s character seems to be appealing to a well-known set phrase of the time. The online OED doesn’t help. Has anyone else come across ‘Hun’ used in this way during the twenties?

The Strange Vanguard is subtitled ‘A Fantasia’ and is one of the entertainments in which Bennett indulges his fondness for luxury hotels, big yachts and improbable stories. It’s my homework this month for the Reading 1900-1950 group, and I’m rather enjoying it. The text is available on the Canadian Project Gutenberg website.


  1. Posted January 18, 2014 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Here’s another linguistic oddity in the same novel.
    The morning after being felled by an upper-cut to the jaw, Lord Ferber politely tells his assailant of the night before:

    “Chin a bit wanky. Can’t think how I happened to fall on it. But it’s better than it was.”

    Puzzled by this, I looked up ‘wanky’ in the OED, which gives no examples earlier than 1972.

    (1972 K. Bonfiglioli Don’t point that Thing at Me xix. 173, I was now quite calm, the wanky old avenger preparing to kill his man.
    1973 M. Amis Rachel Papers 78 No, man, don’t get too wanky with her. And cut out all this intellectual shit.)

    Even for the verb ‘wank’ no examples are given before 1950, when ‘whank’ appeared in a dictionary of prison slang.
    Presumably Bennett is giving us a variant of ‘wonky’ (‘ Of a person: shaky, groggy; unstable.’) for which the OED’s first example is an intriguing one from Lord Northcliffe in 1919:

    ‘Am weak, and wonky, as the telephone girls say, after a bad morning with the subscribers.’

    The OED describes the etymology of ‘wonky’ as ‘Obscure’, but notes that ‘the German element wankel- has similar force.’
    So maybe the German term had been the origin of this English colloquial usage, and was still influencing pronunciation of it. Or maybe Bennett (or his publisher’s compositor) just made a mistake.

    • Posted January 26, 2014 at 1:56 am | Permalink

      How does “wanky” relate to “wanker”?

      • Posted January 26, 2014 at 11:11 am | Permalink

        It’s the adjective derived from the same root. To Martin Amis, etc, ‘wanky’ can be applied to any person or activity that is self-indulgent and unproductive.

  2. Posted January 22, 2014 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    How very odd – both of them!

  3. Posted January 25, 2014 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Another small puzzle is the name of the novel. In Bennett’s journal, he consistently refers to it as The Vanguard (mostly when noting with satisfaction how quickly he was writing it).
    The American edition of 1927 was also called The Vanguard, and the title fits the book, since it is the name of the luxury yacht on which most of the action happens.
    But then the British edition of 1928 was called The Strange Vanguard, a title that makes little sense, since the novel is not particularly strange.
    My best bet as to the reason is that a novel called Vanguard, by L.W.Vedrenne had been published in Britain in 1927; maybe the publisher wanted to avoid a confusion.

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