When Did We Start Calling Things "Witch Hunts"?

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June 21 2012 5:34 PM

When Did We Start Calling Things "Witch Hunts"?

How the Salem trials turned into a political metaphor.

Witch.
An actual witch, or political scapegoat?

Photograph by Thinkstock.

A House committee recommended holding Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress on Wednesday for his failure to turn over thousands of documents in an investigation of government gun sales to Mexican drug cartels. Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney called the move part of a political “witch hunt.” Before hunting witches fell out of favor, what did we call it when authorities rounded up large numbers of innocent people based on flimsy evidence?

“Dark and severe prosecutions,” among other things. “Witch hunt” is a handy phrase because it’s utterly unique. At the time of the 1692 Salem witch trials, America’s most famous witch hunt, critics lacked an apt metaphor for the madness that engulfed the town. Even after the trials ended, authorities groped sheepishly for words. Semiliterate Massachusetts Gov. Sir William Phips called the false accusations a “delusion of the Devill” in a letter to his English overlords. The General Court of Massachusetts, in a 1711 act clearing the names of most of the victims, described the Salem trials as “dark and severe prosecutions.” When Samuel Sewall, one of the judges in the trials, apologized in 1697, he simply used the word “sin” to describe what he had done.

Seventeenth-century Americans probably didn’t use the phrase “witch hunt” in its literal sense, either. In the unfinished 1637 play Sad Shepherd, Ben Jonson referred to the “sport of witch-hunting,” but the more common phrase was “witch-finding,” after Matthew Hopkins, the self-styled “Witchfinder General” who saw to the execution of hundreds of alleged English witches in the 1640s.

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The figurative use of “witch hunt” entered the English language in the early 20th century. The Oxford English Dictionary credits Ian Hay with the first metaphorical use of the phrase in his 1915 book The First Hundred Thousand, but Hay used it humorously to describe the search for a podiatrist in a World War I army unit. Within four years, however, writers were describing the search for Bolsheviks in New York City schools as “witch hunting.”

One of the reasons that it took so long for “witch hunt” to gain metaphorical currency is that there was little self-reflection after the Salem trials. Most people placed all of the blame on the young women who identified the witches. The General Court of Massachusetts, for example, noted that the accusers “have since discovered themselves to be persons of profligate and vicious conversation.” Samuel Sewall appears to be the only of the five judges to apologize. Others seem to have destroyed their records and personal correspondence from the period. It was decades, or even a century, before people began to seriously question how civil society could have allowed the prosecutions to proceed. Some historians now believe that a panic over marauding Indians, who were supposedly aided by colonial witches, led to the trials, much like fear of Trotskyism led to the Soviet witch hunts of the 1930s, and fear of communism spawned the McCarthy era.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Mary Beth Norton of Cornell University, author of In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692, Benjamin Ray of the University of Virginia, author of the forthcoming book Satan and Salem, and Robert Thurston of Miami University of Ohio, author of The Witch Hunts: A History of the Witch Persecutions in Europe and North America.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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