Eponym Series: Lynch mob – Irish or American in origin?


this week’s word and another entry in my eponym series is lynch and while most of us would know that to lynch someone is to punish them without bothering with a trial, the real mystery lies in discovering who Lynch was.

Lynch is a common Irish surname, so I suspected an Irish connection and came across a link to Galway. The story goes that in 1493 James Lynch Fitzstephen, the Mayor of Galway, strung up his own son from the upstairs window of his house for mudering a young Spanish man over a romantic rivalry. There’s even a plaque at the window which you can see in Galway.

A dramatic story, and a great one for tourists, but almost certainly false because the term didn’t become common for another three hundred years. In fact the window with the plaque doesn’t even date from the correct period and is no longer in the original Lynch house. You can see a photo of it and read an even more complex tale of the Galway lynching here.

The much more likely (although nobody is 100% sure) originator of the word is an American Quaker Charles Lynch (1736-1796), a planter in Virginia who held an irregular court to imprison Loyalist supporters of Britain during the American Revolution. He later got a law passed to excuse him from wrong-doing – called Lynch’s Law – because it was wartime. The controversy around this law brought the word into common usage to mean anything done without due legal process. Although lynching later came to be closely linked to racial issues, Charles himself was known to be “colour blind” in his judgements. Inhabitants of Lynchburg city, Virginia will probably already know of their connection to the story, Charles’ older brother founded the town.

Interested in the people behind the eponyms? Have a look at Boycott, Ferris, Guillotine, Wellington, and Jeremiad. I’ve written a book about nearly 300 of them and the lives of the fascinating people who gave their name to English. “How To Get Your Name In The Dictionary” is out now in Amazon paperback (USA and UK), and ebook for Kindle, iBooks, and on Kobo.

Until next time happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


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5 thoughts on “Eponym Series: Lynch mob – Irish or American in origin?

  1. Pingback: The Eponym Series – Bowler Hat | The Wordfoolery Blog

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  4. Pingback: The Eponym Series – Magenta | The Wordfoolery Blog

  5. Pingback: Lynch (extended edition) | The Wordfoolery Blog

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