Background behind "Oh, the Humanity!"
October 11, 2013 3:16 PM   Subscribe

I am aware that the phrase "Oh, the humanity!" came from Herbert Morrison's reporting on the Hindenburg disaster, but if there are any Mefites who are highly knowledgeable about the language of the 1930s, what did it actually mean? Was this an accepted use of the word "humanity" at the time?
posted by Bugbread to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
well, "humanity" can and does mean "the condition of being human" in the existential sense. I always took the exclamation to mean pretty much that: "oh! the horror and tragedy of being frail and human and part of this disaster, either as a helpless passenger on the ship or a helpless bystander."
posted by crush-onastick at 3:25 PM on October 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Morrison's reporting was added to the newsreel footage later, and speeded up slightly, so that version sounds far more plaintive and anguished that the audio alone does. His account of the event in American Radio History is interesting.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:27 PM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm not clear on what you suppose it meant then that it does not today. But I may have some helpful insight.

First of all, I think it's clear that Morrison was using it as a mass noun, as today we might say "people". That's what was on his mind as he reacted to this immediate disaster.

But second, I think there's also an undercurrent of the moral view of humanity, something we don't hear as much today. The state of being human, in the more overtly religious America of the 1930s, was also the state of being subordinate -- to God, to Nature, to caprice. This isn't to say it was a cynical view, but I think the interpretation or exegesis, if you will, of this narration is that the inherent weakness and fragility of humans was highlighted by the flaming tower of death, a disaster brought on by technology which had hitherto been celebrated as among the most modern and accomplished of human creations to date.

Recall the infamous hype of the Segway being "they'll build cities around it"? The dirigible was, in fact, having cities built to accomodate it, with a serious fad of skyscrapers of the era being topped by a docking facility -- many of which were never used, not even for a demonstration.

I don't think it's too much to say that it was similar to what many of us felt on 9/11 watching the World Trade Center crumble.
posted by dhartung at 3:28 PM on October 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

I've actually always heard that it was just one of those weird things people end up saying when they're too shocked/surprised/awestruck/horrified/angry/etc. to form coherant thought but they're still speaking, and something totally weird comes out. It may not have been anything, it's just what happened to come out during his babble.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:43 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Google's ngram viewer suggests it wasn't common in books, at least, but isn't it a transparent virtue oath akin to for pity's sake, oh my goodness, oh for mercy's sake, oh goodness gracious, etc.? They're invocations of common kindness and fellow-feeling that call attention to the speaker's distress, and invoking humanity just reaches for something not only common but ostensibly universal.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:21 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It predates the thirties, if you're willing to stretch the initial exclamation a bit. Here is the end of Bartleby the Scrivener, and the last line expresses a mingled despair, horror and pity similar to the better-known quote:

The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!

posted by mittens at 4:32 PM on October 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would also wager that he was trying not to say "Holy Fucking Shit!" or something equally unsuitable for broadcast. Even "Oh my God!" would have been of questionable taste at the time.
posted by briank at 4:42 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I can't say anything about general use of "humanity" in the thirties, but the reason Morrison said it is here:

Later in the broadcast, as reporter Herb Morrison learned that there were survivors, he said, “I hope that it isn’t as bad as I made it sound at the very beginning.” Years later, Morrison recalled that he yelled “Oh, the humanity,” because he thought everyone on board had died; in fact, sixty-two of the people on board survived.

Supposedly he had used the word "humanity" earlier to refer to the crowd there to see the Hindenburg, but I haven't been able to find a transcript or full recording so far. If so it reinforces that he meant to use "humanity" as a synonym for "people".
posted by oneirodynia at 5:25 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Okay, there's an audio file of the full report here at the top of the page. Morrison says at about 5:35 "... no doubt people were looking down at the great mass of humanity assembled here on the field." The disaster happens at about 8:35.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:46 PM on October 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've always stumbled over that quote, too, Bugbread, because I hear it as synonymous with "humaneness" (the second definition), which doesn't fit at all.

I do think he meant "people," but it's an odd usage because "humanity" in that sense means "the human race," not "this specific group of humans."
posted by torticat at 7:12 PM on October 11, 2013

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