The English language is broad and wonderful. Language can be poetry. It can warm the heart or chill one’s bones. It can be specific or general. English can be harrowing with homophones, homographs, idioms, and alternate spellings. The words are some 220,000 strong. But, our language is only as powerful as the way people use it.
If we’ve got something on our minds, we should speak or write. Just please, respect the language, use it correctly, and make use of as many of those nearly quarter million words as possible. Words like “many,” “very,” and especially “thing” are trite and carry no meaning. Choose others. Hot is a word that has its place in usage, but it can mean anything from tepid to steamy, roasting, or boiling––even sexy. Crane can be a bird, refer to construction equipment, or stretch your neck. Clarity is of utmost importance.
I could go on to dozens of favorites. I love the oddball words that are specific and often with hilarious sounding pronunciations like spitzzerinctum (high spirits) sounds like a body part or petrichor (the pleasant, earthy smell after a rain) sounds like a dinosaur.
I’d like to highlight one word and one phrase that have recently come into frequent misuse. The word and the phrase each have unique, sacred meanings. They represent past heroism and fortitude. They also represent hatred and division. They should not be used as metaphors, or hyperbole. They should not be used to make activity outside their specific realm sound critical.
Those words are “lynching” and “witch hunt.” They each have a place in time that should not be watered down by usurping them for another purpose.
To lynch, or lynching in its gerund form, has one and only one usage. It refers to the nearly 5,000, mostly black, citizens who were murdered by mostly white, southern citizens during the one hundred years from Reconstruction in 1865 until the tandem Civil Rights Act in 1964 and 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Lynching is often thought to be hanging and that was the method of choice by renegade mobs intending to control the black, southern population from expecting anything resembling civil rights. However, lynching deaths could be caused by hanging, severe beatings, drowning, or immolation. Guns were not often used due to the efficiency and swiftness with which they caused death. Famously, Emmett Till was a black 14-year-old who was accused by white woman, Carolyn Bryant (who much later admitted her accusation was made up), of whistling at her. Subsequently her husband and his half-brother, both Klan members, lynched Till by making use of all four methods mentioned above to teach, not only Till, but any other black person, a lesson. The men were tried and acquitted by a jury of their white peers.
Emmett Till was lynched. Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Mickey Schwerner were lynched. Goodman and Schwerner were white, but sympathizing with the cause of equality by “outside agitators” was also a lynching offense. The three Mississippi Freedom Workers were lynched in June of 1964 due to working for voter registration and civics education of black people.
If it didn’t happen to a black person or a sympathizer between 1865, mostly until 1965 (there have been murders that can be considered lynchings after that time, but the definition remains specific to civil rights challenges), it’s not a lynching.
The seventeenth century Witch Trials in Massachusetts Bay Colony allowed 196 women and four men to be accused and 20 executed for supposedly acting out, violating piety, and the literal scripture interpretations of the day. The span of time was 14 months from March 1692 to May 1693. Some were young some were old. Many were married, some were not. Some had the audacity to challenge the norms of the day regarding the place of women in a society and family. What they did share was a spirit of independence. They were simply pointed at for being different and 20 of them were adjudicated to be witches and hanged on Gallows Hill for facing off against demanded norms. Some of the accusers were their husbands. Shortly after the trials ended it was officially admitted that mistakes were made and these women were not witches. It is important that we take the women’s fate seriously and use “witch hunt” as a singular reminder of the misogyny that women continue to face today.
Arthur Miller used the Salem trials as an allegory in his 1953 play, “The Crucible,” alluding to the evils of McCarthyism. I’ll give Miller a pass, but suggest that it is not a “witch hunt” whenever charges of wrong-doing are investigated. Conjuring “McCarthyism” into any conversation provides perfect clarity, leaving “witch hunt” to its singular use.
Witch hunt and lynching, along with Holocaust, are words that need to be held in reserve and saved to represent precisely their historical reference. Women don’t deserve to have “witch hunt” brought up for every act of unwanted collection. Black Americans don’t deserve to hear “lynching” cited when death is not a factor. And, Jews should not be asked to share “Holocaust” with any wider meaning. Our broad and wonderful language gives us plenty of options to describe people being persecuted. We shouldn’t allow abasing the true meaning of historical events that shaped history and have taken on reverential meaning to the ancestors of those wronged.
Terry Donnelly is a retired teacher. He taught in public schools in Kentucky, Michigan, and Colorado. He was an adjunct faculty member instructing teachers and teacher trainees at Michigan State University, University of Colorado, and Adams State College in Colorado.