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August 03, 2018  |  Friday words #132  |  252 hit(s)

Politics surely is a rich source of new terms, even if most of them are weasely. This week I saw an article about James Allsup, a prominent alt-right personalty. Allsup had been called a white supremacist, and various GOP officials in the state of Washington had officially distanced themselves from him. But in private, a local party chair who supported Allsup said that the candidate had been label-lynched.

There are a number of interesting things about this term. The connotation is that the Allsup had been metaphorically killed via language, moreover with the idea that this had been done extra-legally. Dictionaries I've looked at don't list metaphoric meanings of lynch, but it's not the first time that the word has been used like this; Clarence Thomas used the expression high-tech lynch mob to describe (and, as some say, shut down) uncomfortable questions that came up during his confirmation hearings for a seat on the Supreme Court.

The word lynch is a very fraught term in the US. It invokes senses of mob rule, of enduring and extreme prejudice, and of innocent victims. And of course lynching was prevalent for a long time in the US as a largely unpunished crime that was used to exert violent and unjust control over a minority population. Invoking the word lynch is serious business. So it's some kind of verbal jujitsu to use a term like lynch to describe the reaction to someone's white supremacist views. Not to mention that this is paired with label (label-lynching) to describe someone who routinely uses terms like cuckservative, along with an insulting set of terms to describe African-Americans, Jews, and women.

The term seems to be relatively new. An article suggests that it has currency in the alt-right community, and was possibly invented earlier this year. The Spokane newspaper that broke the story of the GOP chair admiring Allsup might be the term's entry into a wider world.

I will say that as a piece of language, the expression label-lynching feels like something that could have been invented by master propagandist Frank Luntz. The alliteration, the bumper-sticker mentality, the implicit outrage: these all feel like attributes that can give a term like this legs.

Ok, enough of that unpleasantness. Let's move to origins. A tweet this week by the folks at Dictionary.com clued me in to an unexpected etymology for the word penthouse. It was not originally a house and it wasn't, um, pent.

The word as we got it from French was apentiz, which referred to an attached building or lean-to. This is related to appendix in the sense of "attached." But two things happened. One was that the initial and unstressed a- dropped off, a process known as aphaeresis or aphesis (compare around > 'round and excuse > 'scuse). That left us with a word like pentyz (various spellings).

Then a process called folk etymology took hold. The word pente meant "slope," and people heard "pent-is" referring to a building with a sloped roof, and they thought that the -is part must actually be -house (hey, a building, right?). So the word actually turned into penthouse. It wasn’t till the 20th century that penthouse was applied to a (small) apartment or structure on the top a tall building. And from there the normal rules of real estate converted location, location, location to luxury.

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