So, what does one learn from the definition of the Hun in the OED?
1. (a) They were one of an Asiatic race. However, no ethnicity is given. We do not know if they were Iranians, Indians, Turkic etc. Nor do we know if they were speaking an Indo-European language, an Altaic language etc. However, the etymology of the word is described as “believed to represent the native name of the people, who were known to the Chinese as Hiong-nu, and also Han.” Thus, they were not Chinese. The last part of this description is wrong, though, since they could have never been known to the Chinese as Han. The OED itself defines Han as “[d]esignating a Chinese dynasty (206 [BC] – 220 [AD]) marked by the introduction of Buddhism, the extension of Chinese rule over Mongolia, the revival of letters, and increase of wealth and culture.” That is, Han was a Chinese dynasty. They had nothing to do with the Hiong-nu.
(b) They were warlike, which, according to the OED, means “[n]aturally disposed to warfare or fighting; skilled in war, martial; courageous in war, valiant; fond of war, bellicose.”
(c) They were nomads, which, again according to the OED, designate persons “belonging to a race or tribe which moves from place to place to find pasture; hence, [persons] who live a roaming or wandering life.”
(d) They invaded Europe around 375 AD.
(e) In the middle of the 5th century, under Attila, they overran (= ran over [OED]) and ravaged (= devastated, laid waste, despoiled, plundered [OED]) a great part of Europe.
2. In the US, it once meant Hungarian in common or everyday speech. However, the latest example given is from 1890.
3. It also meant “[a] reckless or wilful destroyer of the beauties of nature or art: an uncultured devastator.” The last example is dated 1892. It seems to be synonymous with Goth and Vandal, since one is asked to consult to those articles.
One meaning of Goth in English, according to the OED, is “[o]ne who behaves like a barbarian, esp. in the destruction or neglect of works of art; a rude, uncivilized, or ignorant person; one devoid of culture and taste.” In addition, vandal means “[o]ne who acts like a Vandal or barbarian; a wilful or ignorant destroyer of anything beautiful, venerable, or worthy of preservation.”
Therefore, according to the Anglo-Saxon world, Germanic Goths and Vandals, and Huns whose ethnicity is not mentioned by the editors of the OED were barbarians, rude, uncivilized, ignorant, reckless or wilful destroyer of the beauties of nature or art, uncultured devastators.
4. The identification of Huns and Germanic peoples continues in the next definition. A Hun is meant to signify “a person of brutal conduct or character, ...” and during and since the World War I, “applied to the Germans (or their allies),” i.e., Turks and Bulgarians.
Now, for the first time the Hun and the Turk are associated albeit in a derogatory manner. But then there is a twist here. According to the OED, the source was the German emperor himself.
5. Strangely enough, in the same war, it was used as a slang word by the Air Force, for “a flying cadet,” and then evidently totally forgotten, because the last example is from 1925.
In short, the picture depicted by the Anglo-Saxon dictionary, published by the Oxford University Press since 1884, for a Hun is not a complimentary one. This, of course, reflects the attitude of the English-speaking world even though they may not use the word in a pejorative sense anymore just because of this so-called political correctness. The editors also confuse the Hun with the Han even though they describe the latter as “marked by… the revival of letters, and increase of wealth and culture.” On the other hand, they connect the Asian Huns with the European Huns interestingly.
First published: 12 January 2013.