Even by the unrelenting outrage-machine standards of @realDonaldTrump’s Twitter account, his outrageous proclamation last week — that the impeachment inquiry amounted to “a lynching” — was a headline-grabbing provocation.
Here was the man who lives in the White House comparing a series of Capitol Hill hearings and subpoenas to a word that means “to put to death (as by hanging) by mob action without legal approval or permission.” It was hyperbolic for effect, which Donald Trump excels at, but incendiary for distraction and self-victimization — two more Trump specialties. And it worked: Lookups of lynch on Merriam-Webster’s website spiked 17,400 percent that day.
Despite its horrific history, the word is a relatively young one, dating to just 1835. (For comparison’s sake, Eastern State Penitentiary, where you just wet yourself at the Terror Behind the Walls haunted house, first opened six years earlier, in 1829.) The term lynching’s origins are a bit obscure, but it probably came from Virginian Charles Lynch, a 19th-century farmer with a penchant for taking the law into his own hands. Lynchings remained a popular form of oppression for more than a century; more than 4,000 black Americans were victims of lynchings between 1877 and 1950. Ohio, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Virginia all have cities named Lynchburg.
Trump’s use of the gerund lynching makes it hit even harder. Gerunds are nouns that, without the -ing at the end, would be verbs: Lynching is the noun formed from the verb lynch.
Gerunds often get a bad rap because they introduce some trickier rules around possessives and dangling modifiers. For example, is it “I appreciate you coming” or “I appreciate your coming”? (Usually your, but it’s annoying and I always have to look it up.) Plus, gerunds are often confused with present participles, and both can easily end up as dangling modifiers. No one likes a dangler.
But gerunds can be powerful too. They can help make a sentence more concise: “Impeaching is the right thing to do” vs. “The right thing to do is to impeach.”
Just as using the passive voice can absolve individuals of responsibility, gerunds can work the same way. By calling the impeachment inquiry “a lynching,” Trump avoids implicating anyone — say, congressional Democrats — in the action. By not saying “Democrats are lynching me,” Trump keeps the term a little less literal and a little more metaphorical. The responsibility of the action is more diffuse, which gives him an out when he’s criticized for misappropriating a wildly racial term. Or maybe he didn’t want to confuse everyone into thinking he was talking about the pro-slavery Democratic Party of the 19th century, the party of Stephen A. Douglas (Abraham Lincoln’s nemesis), James Buchanan (Lincoln’s predecessor), and Andrew Johnson.
Yeah, that Andrew Johnson. The first president to be impeached.
But even if Trump’s tweet was, for once, grammatical, the term’s racial history is especially problematic for somebody with a history of racist utterances. Joe Biden even apologized for having used the term partisan lynching to describe Bill Clinton’s impeachment more than 20 years ago.
Lynching in any form — gerund, participle, verb, or otherwise — is best confined to the trash heap of history. Collectively dumping the misuse of the most traumatic words in our country’s history is the kind of mob mentality we can all get behind.
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. That’s every other week, not twice a week, friends. Send comments, questions and fused participles to firstname.lastname@example.org.