The Grammarphobia Blog

Linchpins and lynching

Q: The mention of “linchpin” in your blog item about “hinge point” reminds me of this sentence in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye: “A high-yellow dream child with long brown hair braided into two lynch ropes that hung down her back.” Whew!

A: Whew, indeed! I’ve done a little research into “linchpin” and “lynch,” and you might be interested in what I found.

“Linchpin,” a word that originated back in the 1300s, is a pin passed through the end of an axle-tree to keep a wheel in place. In even more distant times (as early as the year 700), the device was simply called a “linch,” spelled a variety of ways.

The “lynch” that now means to execute someone without a fair trial is named after Captain William Lynch (1742-1820) of Pittsylvania, Va., according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In 1780, Lynch and some of his neighbors devised a plan for dealing with outlaws without relying on the distant and slow-moving courts.

To avoid having to comply with what they considered the tedious, technical requirements of the law, the “Lynch-men” set themselves up as a self-constituted court, though they had no legal authority to do so.

Punishments inflicted by vigilantes or self-appointed tribunals were said to be done under “Lynch’s law” or “Lynch law.”

The earliest published reference for the phrase, according to the OED, is this 1811 citation from the journal of Andrew Ellicott, a well-known surveyor:

“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.”

Although other Lynches have been mentioned in connection with lynching, the OED says, the “particulars supplied by Ellicott, together with other evidence, clearly establish the fact that the originator of Lynch law” was Captain Lynch.

In its earliest uses, to “lynch” did not necessarily mean to execute someone without a legal trial. Here’s how the OED defines the verb:

“To condemn and punish by lynch law. In early use, implying chiefly the infliction of punishment such as whipping, tarring and feathering, or the like; now only, to inflict sentence of death by lynch law.”

An ugly chapter in our history!

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