Lynching redux

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Thu Aug 4 15:20:23 UTC 2005

Part of the problem is that we're assuming that "lynch" has always had just one neatly phrased definition.  The historical examples prove otherwise.  In early use, it could refer to any (usually?) violent extralegal punishment. Later it became associated primarily with extralegal hangings by vigilante groups; still later with the murder, often by hanging, of African-Americans suspected of transgressing white supremacist injuctions; and then with the murder by white supremacists of any person suspected of such transgression.

 I haven't heard of the execution of Western hostages by Islamist terrorists referred to as "lynchings," even though the elements of murder, extralegality, vigilante-type groups, and ethnic difference are present. Missing is the now-crucial element of white ferocity directed against blacks.

In the case of Judge Thomas, we see a quantum jump in figurative meaning. One presumes that this usage will endure because it's both vivid and immediately comprehensible. It remains to be seen whether politicians will ever be accused of "lynching" other politicians of the same race.

Not for many decades, surely.


George Thompson <george.thompson at NYU.EDU> wrote:
---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: George Thompson
Subject: Re: Lynching redux

As regards the question of whether "lynching" always signified an extra-
legal execution, I have 3 very early occurences -- not antedatings,
however -- in which it did not. By the end of the 19th C the word may
have been understood differently, of course.

After being lynched by the citizens, he was permitted to escape. New-
York American, July 13, 1837, p. 2, col. 6

LYNCHING. [The headline to a brief story: Anthony Gallagher was caught
stealing shoes from Anderson's shoe store, Chatham street; he's given
the choice of arrest or a beating] New York Daily Express, March 27,
1838, p. 2, col. 3

1843: Dr. Wells, of Madison county, Ohio, charged with habitually
whipping his wife, was lately taken from his house at night by some of
his neighbors and severely lynched. New York Daily Express, March 8,
1843, p. 2, col. 4


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

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