Category Archives: Word of the Week

Word of the Week, 1/30/12 – 2/3/2012 — rotary

ro·ta·ry, adj., n., pl. -ries  —adj.  1. turning like a top or a wheel; rotating. 2. (of motion) circular: In the windmills that operate pumps the rotary motion must be changed into reciprocating (back-and-forth) motion (Beauchamp, Mayfield, and West).  3. having parts that rotate.  4. of or having to do with a rotary aircraft engine.  —n.  1. a rotary engine or machine.   2.Especially U.S. and Canada. a traffic circle.  3. Electricity. a synchronous converter.  [< Medieval Latin rotarius < Latin  rota wheel]

~ The World Book Dictionary

The word rotary is obviously related to words like rotation and rota, all of which share the Latin rota, or wheel, as their origin.  The rotary in mechanics is a fundamental simple machine used in any number of technologies.  It is also the symbol for the service organization, Rotary International.  Curiously, while the organization’s first construction, organized on February 23, 1905–a Rotary club in Chicago–called itself a “Rotary club”, the initial attempt at a symbol was, in fact, a wagon wheel.  The club called itself the Rotary club because the meetings rotated among the members’ offices.  The early wagon wheel symbol, introduced in Chicago, illustrated “civilization and movement.”

The first Rotary club was founded by Paul Harris who sought to create a professional organization with the same friendly spirit as the small town in which he had grown up.  Within a decade, clubs had spread all over the country and by 1921 Rotary had expanded to six continents, requiring the name change to Rotary International in the following year.  It is also in 1922 when a universal Rotary symbol was thought to be required and in 1923 the current rotary wheel was adopted: 24 cogs, six spokes, and later modified on the advice of engineers to include a “keyway” in the center of the gear to attach it to a power shaft, making the rotary mechanically sound.

Soon the organization grew towards an added mission of philanthropy beyond serving club members’ professional and social interests (though that continues through regular weekly program meetings).  Over the years, its motto would be refined to “Service above Self.”  By 1932, one Rotarian, Herbert J. Taylor, created “The Four Way Test” which would eventually be adopted as the Rotary International’s code of ethics:

Of the things we think, say or do

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

While many service and civic organizations would grow up after Rotary, they have since lost membership, which has steadily declined since the advent of television–yes, that long ago.  Rotary continues to have extremely robust membership, though, like others, much of its growth has come internationally.  Still, Rotary’s U.S. membership exceeds most other groups combined total membership.

While Rotary clubs devote themselves to their community, they also look to make an impact abroad, and one of the most momentous decisions made a few decades ago was to give a gift to the world in time for the 100th anniversary.  The goal was to eradicate polio in the world.  While 2005 came and went, as of today there are only 4 countries left with continuous polio cases: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, India.  (If you click on this link:, you can learn more about the nitty-gritty details behind polio eradication.)  This has been achievable with Rotary clubs based throughout the world, including clubs in developing countries, that have been the manpower onsite to help distribute the vaccines in concert with Rotarians worldwide who are donating and fundraising.

The symbol of the rotary wheel for Rotary International, takes on new meaning as the clubs have reached out to donate locally and internationally for projects, such as Books for International Goodwill, clean water projects, and literacy programs, international clubs are now returning the favor by supporting and donating to local Rotary projects in our own communities.  The symbol continues to reflect continuous giving and support with the ideal of Service above Self.

Click on this link to see a common local Rotary activity–handing out dictionaries to 3rd graders.


  1. History of Rotary, Rotary International website
  2. The ABCs of Rotary, Rotary International publication
  3. Bowling Alone in America, Robert Putnam
  4. Polio publications from Rotary International (see link above)

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Word of the Week, 1/16 – 1/20/12 — quixotic

quixotic • adj. exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical: a vast and perhaps quixotic project.

DERIVATIVES: quixoticallyadv., quixotismn., quixotryn.

The Oxford Essential Dictionary of Difficult Words

Picasso, 1955

This is one of those words that was born out of literature, deriving from the main character of Miguel de Cervantes’s opus, the titular Don Quixote.  Don Quixote describes the character and pursuits of a sad (by our estimation, not his own) gentleman from La Mancha:

Down in a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to recollect, there lived, not long ago, one of those gentlemen who usually keep a lance upon a rack, an old buckler, a lean stallion, and a coursing greyhound.  Soup composed of somewhat more mutton than beef, the fragments served up cold on most nights, lentils on Fridays, eggs and collops on Saturdays, and a pigeon, by way of addition, on Sundays, consumed three-fourths of his income; the remainder of it supplied him with a cloak of fine cloth, velvet breeches, with slippers of the same for holidays, and a suit of the best homespun, in which he adorned himself on week-days…  The age of our gentleman bordered upon fifty years; he was  of a strong constitution, spare-bodied, of a meagre visage, a very early riser, and a lover of the chase.

Now this worthy gentleman, in his leisure moments, which composed the greater part of the year, gave himself up with so much ardour to the perusal of books of chivalry, that he almost wholly neglected the exercise of the chase, and even the regulation of his domestic affairs; indeed so extravagant was his zeal in this pursuit, that he sold many acres of arable land to purchase books of knight-errantry; collecting as many as he could possibly obtain.

Miguel de Cervantes,  Don Quixote

(Borders Classics–translator omitted)

This gentleman, rather too taken with his obsolete ideas of chivalry, goes on his adventure which includes, perhaps most famously, the attempted slaying of a dragon that is, in fact, a windmill.  He is, in short, delusional with his attempt to pursue his notions of heroic chivalry as relayed to him through his old books.

Naturally, this work is significant for its style and scope in literary history, putting Cervantes in rarefied air, but that is the work for literary historians.  I find the word a particularly enigmatic one precisely because of the contrasts drawn between the work’s protagonist and its author.  Delusional Don Quixote is pursuing heroism in a time that rejects the notion of a solitary knight hero, when wars and battles are actually increasing from the medieval era and the early whispers of industry allow for large armies of commoners and mercenaries.  (See, for example, The Military Revolution Debate, Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe, edited by Clifford Rogers.)  Opposed to his anti-hero is Cervantes who, in this same era, embodied many of the same antiquated medieval ideas espoused by Don Quixote.

Cervantes fought in one of the last crusades–the only entirely naval crusade–led by the dashing Don Juan of Austria, bastard brother of the Spanish King Philip.  The surprising reality of the Battle of Lepanto, in which they fought against the Ottoman Empire’s navy directly threatening Rome and the Papacy, is that it contains all of the trappings and features of a fictional, chivalric tale from the medieval era.  Despite being fought in the early modern period, it is a crusade called by the pope in defense of Rome against Ottoman Muslims.  The response from Europe to the call is negligible, entirely encapsulated in Italian ships manned by Spaniards (with some Italian mercenaries and German Landsknechts via the Hapsburg connection)–long the stalwarts of the crusades.

In the battle, the two sides line up in the last of the ancient naval battles, which will shortly be revolutionized with cannon.  The records tell us that the Christians lined up in a cross to combat the Muslim line of ships arrayed in a crescent.  The Christians win the day with heroic actions from Cervantes and Don Juan and free Christian slaves who man the rows of the Muslim ships.  Cervantes, is outstanding in his individual bravery and daring, fighting a real threat, in real battle–so much unlike his sad fictional gentleman, clearly a relic from a past time in the novel.

This curious juxtaposition between the author and his character is puzzling.  G.K. Chesterton wrote about it on more than one occasion, including in his short epic poem of the battle.  It casts an interesting connotation on the word quixotic.  If it is simply applied to unrealistic, idealistic, perhaps antiquated, pursuits–which is how I think it is used most frequently–then that is one thing, but it is also mocking not so much because one aspires to heroism, but because the one who aspires is so woefully inadequate, has such vainglory notions, and is so abysmally deluded that the aspiration is empty and hopeless.

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Word of the Week, 12/5 – 12/10/11 – papist

Papist (pe·pist) An adherent of the pope; esp. an advocate of papal supremacy; also, more generally, a member of the Roman Catholic Church; a Roman Catholic or Romanist.  (Usually hostile or opprobrious.) [1521 FISHER Serm. agst. Luther Wks. 344  The popes holynes & and his fauoureres, whom he [Luther] calleth often in derisyon papistas, papastros, & papanos, & papenses.]  1534 (title) A Litel Treatise ageynst the Mutterynge of some Papistis in Corners.  1657 J. SERGEANT Schism Dispach’t 656 “Tis clear tht al Roman-Catholikes, that is all Communicants with the Church of Rome or Papists (as they call them) hold the substance of the Pope’s Authority.

~ The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary

The word "papist" is derived from Lutheran works during the period of the Reformation.

When Dr. Owen Stanwood was researching the demise of an early, isolated colonial town, he assumed that the colonists would blame Indians for the massacre, but he was surprised.  The English colonists blamed papists.  The term comes to English from similar derogatory terms originating with the German Lutherans.  The association is a negative commentary on those loyal to the pope’s authority and their support for the claimed power he had over souls, theology, and secular issues.

In England, this quickly becomes associated not just with religion but with nascent national identity and, subsequently, the very ability to be loyal to king and country.  It becomes excepted in England that one cannot be Roman Catholic and maintain loyal to the English crown as adherence to the church and the Pope in Rome put one in direct opposition to the king of England; it supplanted one’s loyalty to one’s country; it was treasonous.  This was reinforced by the political powers who defended the Roman Catholic Church, namely France, clearly an enemy of England.

English "papist" Sir Thomas More

This suspicion was challenged by a handful of English officers, Sir Thomas More, Sir Edward Campion and George Calvert, Lord of Baltimore.  However, of these three examples, only George Calvert escaped a death sentence though he did resign his government post when he converted and his Jesuit advisers were technically guilty of treason under the law of the land, stating as it did that any Roman Catholic priest who set foot on English soil was subject to death.  The law in England made Catholics second-class citizens and suspicion would remain a part of the English Protestant tradition, even in the New World.

English colonists in America continued to be suspicious of Catholic colonists.  Even as they were establishing a new government based on democratic ideals, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson speculated in their written correspondence about whether Catholics had a place in a country whose government rejected kings, and presumably, by extension, pontiffs or bishops who sought to behave as such.  Could Catholics in America be trusted to operate loyally to the American government and not respond slavishly to a Roman pontiff?  Calvert believed that loyalty to his country and king was of the highest importance, and that it remained unimpeded by his Catholicism.  In fact, he was the first to seek to establish religious freedom in America, putting religious pluralism into law for his colony of Maryland; but, rather backwardly, he and his progeny also resisted representative modes of government to their undoing.

First Lord of Baltimore, George Calvert, founder of the "papist" colony of Maryland

The challenge was heightened for Anglicans who were cut off in America from their church hierarchy following the Revolutionary War, or in truth the Declaration of Independence which rejected the king’s authority.  (Awkward for a colonial church whose head was the king.  Interestingly, they find a simple way around this by seeking out the bishops of Scotland, who were, for political reasons, granted a reprieve from swearing allegiance to the English crown.  The Episcopalian Church, thus, grew from a bishop consecrated in Scotland, who returned to the United States to shepherd his flock and consecrate new bishops and priests.)  Here, the members of the Church of England had ousted not only their king, but their religious leader, and as they broke away from their old country they formed a new religion, though, admittedly with sacred ties to the old one, but it reinforced how backwards and even threatening the Roman Catholics could be to the young country if the old suspicions about them were true.

In England, suspicion of papists was maintained through declining relations with the Irish, heightened in the area of Northern Ireland, where Protestants and Catholics came to strongly associate religion with national identity.  In the US, this suspicion was fostered by a largely elitist response to poor Catholic immigrants arriving especially those from Ireland and Italy.  The American response was not motivated exclusively by a lack of wealth, but associations of certain behaviors or temperaments with these populations that were also often visually ill-mannered (even drunk), under-educated, and poor.

The term continues to be a derogatory one which assumes a lack of intellectual inquiry or individual thought.  “Papist” still invokes images of Roman Catholics who slavishly follow church hierarchy and the pope’s word, coupled with beliefs or practices that are considered unenlightened.  This stigma, particularly of Church authority, was raised as a concern even with the Kennedys as they entered into politics as recently as the 1950s-60s.  Today, it is a slur frequently associated with deliberately misleading tracts and individuals who repeat inaccurate representations of the Catholic religion.  For whatever reason, the use of this cultural, religious insult does not carry the same stigma that other derogatory labels of  a similar kind carry in our society.

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Word of the Week, 11/28-12/2/11 – OK

OK is the most successful of all Americanisms.  It has invaded hundreds of other languages and been adopted by them as a word.  H. L. Mencken claimed that U.S. troops deployed overseas during World War II found it already in use by people around the world, from the Bedouins in the Sahara to the Japanese in the Pacific.  It was also the first unscripted word spoken on the surface of the moon, uttered by Buzz Aldrin just after the lunar module touched down.

OK is ubiquitous.  Perhaps because it is such a successful word and because it is an abbreviation for something that is not immediately obvious, people want to know where the OK comes from…  [I]t has spawned dozens of explanantions.

Despite the term’s success in entrenching itself in American speech, for over a hundred years no one was really sure of the word’s origin.  The origin of OK became the Holy Grail of etymology.  Finally, in 1963-64 the Galahad of our story, Allen Walker Read of Columbia University uncovered the origin in a series of articles in the journal American Speech.

~  David Wilton, Word Myths, Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends

OK is one of those special words that more or less means assent, acceptance or understanding, at least in print.  Of course, when uttered it is a word finely nuanced by intonation and context.  It’s ability to carry biting sarcasm, enthusiastic assent, or wearied acceptance, and anything falling between these points, in two quickly stated syllables is its great value to the speaker.  That value is so evident that it has carried the word into the far reaches of the world, and beyond, as Wilton points out above.

While my 2 volume World Book Dictionary demonstrates the half dozen or so parts of speech that can be formed from OK, my OED punts on the word, seemingly, shockingly ignoring it.  (Note, that my edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is the Compact Edition from the early ’70s; other editions likely include the two-letter word.)  Ok, to business! David Wilton (author quoted above) accepts the findings of the famous American etymologist, Allen Walker Read.  This is generally regarded as the scientific origin, but some still credit other sources and new discoveries could immediately call the Read theory into question–unlike science there are no discovered “laws” in history (or etymology)!

Allen Walker Read was interested in the origins of the more colorful expressions from English.  His work, Classic American Graffiti, was rejected for publication in the U.S. because it was a bit too colorful for the standards of American publishing–even academic publishing.  While it would be published in Paris in 1935, it was not published in the States until 1977 under the title mentioned above.  (Think about that: Kinsey was able to publish–controversially, I admit–in 1948 and 1953 respectively, but Classic American Graffiti lived out its life in Paris (only 75 copies were printed even there) under its original title: Lexical Evidence from Epigraphy in Western North America: a Glossarial Study of the Low Element in the English Vocabulary, until the 1970s.)  The hunt for OK’s origins was an entertaining diversion from his professional studies.  (Allen Read, Obituary, The Economist)

According to Read’s research, OK is a relic from a fad in 1838-9 Boston newspapers of facetious abbreviations.  Similar to internet abbreviations used in texts, chats or social media updates, these ran using common idioms or clichés:

On June 18, 1838, some nine months before OK makes its appearance, the Boston Morning Post included the following: “We jumped in, and were not disappointed either with the carriage, distance, or price.  It was O.W.–(all right.)”

Clearly, the editor is abbreviating the phrase as if it were spelled oll wright.  New York papers picked up the practice in the summer of 1838, using K.G. for no go, K.Y. for  no use, and K.K.N. for commit no nuisance.

~Wilton, Word Myths

In other words, Read traced the initial OK to a bout of word play among Boston editors in 1838-9.  Again in the Boston Morning Post, one of the editors wrote: “…perhaps if he should return to Boston, via Providence, he of the [Providence] Journal, and his train-band, would have the ‘contribution box,’ et ceteras, o.k.–all correct–and cause the corks to fly, like sparks upward.”  After several instances of reuse in the same paper, the OK “product” traveled south to New York, appearing in the city’s Evening Tattler on September 2.  From there it was picked up New Orleans in October and November, before both OK and the abbreviation fad hit Philadelphia.  (Ibid.)

It is likely that the tipping point for the word would have flared out, as it did for its short-lived brethren from these editorial games, but NY Democrats formed a club, and eventually a slogan, linking their presidential candidate’s nickname, “Old Kinderhooks,” with the “all correct” OK.  Thus, they assured the public that Martin Van Buren was OK for the presidency with the “OK Club” and “I’m with OK” slogan.

There are some other theories, many of the most popular prove to be false–and the majority of these were demonstrated by Read, himself.  As far I as I can tell, this is the only theory which suggests both a word origin and a means for the word to take on popular usage.  This is relevant to my own way thinking as one who is skeptical about the importance of “firsts” that fail to catch on: see “Some thoughts about ‘Firsts’ in history”; but, etymologists are interested in both the first usage and the spread of a word or expression, so there may be more to add to the story at some point still to come.


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Word of the Week, 11/21-11/26/11 — nouveau riche

Nouveau riche

new rich (French)

Trade and economic growth have led to shifting fortunes between the social classes since the earliest civilizations, but during the Industrial Revolution the British borrowed the French term for those with newly acquired wealth who were breaking into aristocratic social circles for the first time.  It was used as it is today, as a derogatory term, laden with the suggestion that as the beneficiaries of new money rather than old, the “nouveau riche” would lack the taste and breeding to know how to use their wealth wisely and discreetly.

I’m sorry, darling, but we really can’t go for dinner with the new neighbors; those big china bulldogs in their driveway are so painfully nouveau riche.

~ Chloe Rhodes, A Certain “Je Ne Sais Quoi”,

The Origin of Foreign Used in English

Chloe Rhodes traces the origins of the English usage of the term to the Industrial Revolution.  Often, in my experience, the focus of the Industrial Revolution is on the workers movements–which are certainly relevant–but, it created another interesting effect in the UK as well.  While many workers shifted from crafts to lesser-paid factory work, factory owners and manufactures of mass-produced products changed the economy and created a new middle class that was wealthy, but untitled, without noble status.  As the economy shifted to manufacturing, the nobility that resisted the new economic factors were soon out-stripped by the successful merchant class.

The new situation in Britain’s economics created a real rub between the landed gentry and the successful businessmen and investors.  Once nobility did not come with a separation of wealth, and in fact sometimes led eventually to poverty, in conjunction with the workers movements Britain turned a new corner in its history.

Similarly, in the American South, with the decline of the plantation economy, a similar economic development and shift took place.  The term was applied liberally in southern America as manufacturing began to unseat the “landed gentry” of the Old South.

The term is a derogatory label for new-monied wealth, with an understanding of gauche and extravagant taste.  The idea here is that the nouveau riche are tasteless and the implication is that they lack the ability and knowledge to know how to use the wealth.  Why?  Because, the nouveau riche climbed to the summit as opposed to being born on the summit.  It is not difficult to see that the resentment for those climbing their way to the summit is in part their capability to retain the summit while the environment changes, while those born on the summit seem caught in the twilight of diminishing relevance and ability.  The nouveau riche threaten to expose the noble class as relics, especially in the early modern economy.

On the other hand, there was also a dismay at diminishing manners and morals.  Particularly in Britain, the rise of the nouveau riche signaled concern for an eventual loss of the morality that the nobility was responsible for safeguarding in society–how closely that perception represented reality is open for interpretation, but it was only in the development of philanthropic enterprises that the nouveau riche was able to mimic the former responsibility of the landed nobility to its extended household and community.

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Word of the Week, 11/14 – 11/19/11 — metastasis

Metastasis: 1. The process by which cancer spreads from the place at which it first arose as a primary tumor to distant locations in the body.
2. The cancer resulting from the spread of the primary tumor. For example, someone with melanoma may have a metastasis in their brain. And a person with colon cancer may, fortunately, show no metastases.

Metastasis depends on the cancer cells acquiring two separate abilities — increased motility and invasiveness. Cells that metastasize are basically of the same kind as those in the original tumor. If a cancer arises in the lung and metastasizes to the liver, the cancer cells in the liver are lung cancer cells. However, the cells have acquired increased motility and the ability to invade another organ.

The ancient Greeks used the word metastasis to mean “removal from one place to another.” The plural of “metastasis” is “metastases.”

Definition of Metastasis,

Perhaps motivated by the recent National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Hockey Fights Cancer and Movember movements, the word of the week is metastasis.

The story of cancer is estimated to be as old as humans; the history of cancer is confirmed to be as old as the Egyptians, who documented its existence in, most famously, the Edwin Smith Papyrus.  The document identified eight types of tumors of the breast and acknowledged no treatment for the condition.  It is Hippocrates (460-370 BCE), the “Father of Medicine,” who gave us the words carcinos and carcinoma, which the Roman physician Celsus (28-50 BCE) translated into cancer, the Latin word for “crab.”  The Roman physician Galen (130-200, CE) used the Greek word for swelling, oncos, to describe the tumor, thus giving us the study of cancer as oncology.  (“History of Cancer from” and American Cancer Society’s “The History of Cancer”)

It is interesting to note that the medical terms for cancer are of Greek and Latin origin–like so many other medical terms–but are, more uniquely, contemporary with the Greeks and Romans.  Metastasis is also of classical origin, meaning “a removing, removal.”  (Greek-English Dictionary, Liddell and Scott–the “Middle Liddell”)  In this case, however, it does not mean the removal of kakou–something bad, like cancer, for example–it means the appearance of the cancer cells in a new place in the body.

Stephen Paget, an English surgeon, first hypothesized that the spread of cancer, metastasis, was achieved because cancer cells spread through the body via blood cells, one hundred years before cellular and molecular biology could prove it accurate.  His hypothesis compared the metastasis of cancer cells to the spread of plant seeds, more of which are dispersed than take root, believing that only certain organs would prove fertile for the mutated cancerous cells.

This understanding of metastasis became a key element in recognizing the limitations of cancer surgery.  It eventually allowed doctors to develop systemic treatments used after surgery to destroy cells that had spread throughout the body and use less mutilating operations in treating many types of cancer.  Today these systemic treatments may also be used before surgery.

~ American Cancer Society, “A History of Cancer”

It is the biological process of metastasis, that necessitates early detection and quick response.  Thanks to a better awareness of cancer prevention, advanced medical procedures for early detection, and more sophisticated, targeted treatments, survivorship has dramatically increased.  In the United States alone, there are over 11 million cancer survivors, but the rate still falls well short of 100%.  Today, survivors and loved ones are the strongest, loudest advocates for early detection and fundraising for cancer research.

This post is dedicate to DARYL COLLETTE (survivor), LORI COLLETTE (co-survivor), KRISTA HEUBUSCH (advocate), SHAWN GARDNER (co-survivor, advocate), CHRIS BARRON (advocate).  

 And in memory of LEXI REEVES and HEATHER GARDNER.

Learn more about early detection of cancer by following this link to the American Cancer Society: Cancer Screening Guidelines, Early Detection of Cancer.


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Word of the Week, 11/7-11/11/11 — lynch

The ultimate origin of the verb lynch is reasonably well established.  The term is American in origin, dating to shortly after the American Revolution.  The term lynch law dates to 1811, first appearing in the writings of Andrew Ellicott: “Captain Lynch just mentioned was the author of the Lynch laws so well known and so frequently carried into effect some years ago in the southern States in violation of every principle of justice and jurisprudence.”  Ellicott is referring to a Captain William Lynch (1742-1820) of Pittsylvania, Virginia.  Lynch led a self-created judicial tribunal during the American Revolution.

~ David Wilton, Word Myths, Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends

There is a culturally-based legend that lynch is of Irish origin, dating back to 1493 in Galway, Ireland.  The legend, as retold by David Wilton in his book Word Myths, is that a mayor of the city hanged his own son for murder.  This supposed origin assumes that the verb developed from the mayor’s name, James Lynch Fitz Stephen, but there is no evidence that the verb to lynch was used before 1836 in America.  Wilton finds that the lynch laws of Captain William Lynch of Pittsylvania, VA, which clearly operated outside of jurisprudence under Lynch’s tribunal, to be the most likely origin.  Other stories have suggested another Virginian, Judge Charles Lynch, who presided over trials of Tory sympathizers, but Wilton argues that these have every appearance of being legitimate legal proceedings.  Another possibility is Lynches Creek in South Carolina, where vigilantes met, ca. 1768–Wilton does not elaborate what type of vigilantes they were.  (115-6, Word Myths)

During the period of the Reconstruction’s demise, as southern states and border states successfully disenfranchised the bulk of their “negro” populations, lynching black men or women, even children, became an acceptable activity for many southerners.  The proof of this is revealed in the confidence Klan members and other citizens had in their actions, as they removed their hoods to be photographed with the trees from which their victims hung.  In his controversial, best-selling book Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen points to this time period in particular as one of the lowest points in race relations in our country when lynching reached an all-time high.  This period was traditionally glossed over in American history textbooks to promote the idea of sustained forward progression in American history, which deliberately neglected the initial successes for the former slave population following the Civil War, including the achievement in elected offices, business, academics, law and the arts.  The following policy-driven period of regress, during which the federal government legalized the separation and segregation of black Americans from white, turned the verb lynch into a uniquely charged word in American race relations.  (Images lynchings with fearless vigilantes are available online.  The website,, features photographs and postcards of lynchings–some of which include white immigrants, such as Italians.)

"In sight of thousands"

Aside from other lesser slang usages in the drug world, the term remains highly charged and is used to reference equally charged scenarios, often involving criminal accusations.  It is particularly used during situations where public opinion seems strongly against a black American defendant often before trials have even commenced, let alone been concluded.  In other cases, it has been used when the defendant has been sentenced to the death penalty, such as the recent case of Troy Davis because it was perceived to have followed with insufficient evidence.  In this case it is typically referred to as legalized lynching.  In other words, the term is deliberately invoked to recall the prior tradition of lawless violence and killing, which often occurred without a response from legal authorities, either out of sympathy to the lynching or out of helplessness to prevent it–or both.

It is also the case that lynching is used in reference to the media coverage.  Ishmael Reed references “media stampedes” surrounding Clarence Thomas, O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson, Kobe Bryant and Michael Vick which created virtual lynchings and assumed guilt before trial because of media fervor.  (Ishmael Reed, Mixing it Up: Taking on the media bullies and other reflections)  The most recent usage is by GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain in one of his political ads, claiming high tech lynching for media coverage of a sexual harassment charge and settlement in his past.

This is a perfect example of how history shapes our understanding of a word.  In this case, the word’s origins are less important than the word’s use and development through America’s era of legalized prejudice and discrimination.  In William Brennan’s Dehumanizing the Vulnerable, When word games take lives, he describes the verbal gymnastics by which one portion of the population dehumanizes another group in order to justify their mistreatment of that group.  (For more from Brennan, see: Dehumanizing words and writing the “other”.)  He does this by identifying the alternative categories in which the group is placed: Deficient Human, Nonhuman, Animal, Parasite, Disease, Inanimate Object, Waste Product, and Nonperson.  There are countless examples of prominent Americans and legal courts using this tactic to justify various ill-treatments, the bulk of which are during the fights over the morality and legality of slavery and during the age when lynching was at its highest point.  The correlation is not an accident.  The word lynch is loaded with ideas such as: “The negro race is … a heritage of organic and psychic debris,” (Dr. William English, 1903) and “The negro is … one of the lower animals,” (Professor Charles Carroll, 1900) and “They [Negroes] are parasites,” (Dr. E. T. Brady, 1909).  (6-7, Brennan)  The historical scars from the word and action has informed, if not created, its rhetorical usage today.

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