The Grammarphobia Blog

A hinge point of history

Q: You were asked on the air about Rick Warren’s use of the term “hinge point” in his invocation at the inauguration of President Obama. I believe you thought he said “linchpin,” but he did indeed use the term “hinge point.”

A: You’re right. I thought I was hearing “linchpin.” But Rick Warren was using “hinge point,” a relatively unfamiliar phrase (at least to me) in the inaugural invocation.

His words: “Now today, we rejoice not only in America’s peaceful transfer of power for the 44th time, we celebrate a hinge point of history with the inauguration of our first African-American president of the United States.”

While Obama is the 44th president, this was the 43rd transfer of power, not the 44th. But that’s beside the point. The point we’re discussing is “hinge point.”

The phrase has several applications in the technical language of engineering, construction, anatomy, even orthopedic reconstructive surgery. Generally, it’s the point where a mechanism pivots.

The evangelical minister was of course using the term metaphorically as a turning point or point at which a significant change takes place.

The term doesn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, but another listener sent me this snippet from an entry about the philospher Johann Friedrich Herbart in the 11th edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica (1911):

“What is it? The answer to this question is the second hinge-point of Herbart’s theoretical philosophy.”

She also provided several references from theological texts to “hinge points” of some historical period, or of Christianity itself, as in these partial quotes:

“… the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the hinge point of the Christian faith,” and “… the hinge point of the entire story is set on the record of how David rose to become Israel’s king, replacing the ineffective Saul.”

I suspect that Warren, the senior pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA, picked up the phrase from religious texts like those.

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