witch hunt

The phrase witch hunt is surprisingly recent. One might expect it to date to the seventeenth century, when real hunts for supposed witches were rampant across Europe. But its use in relation to witches only dates to the late nineteenth century and its political use only to the twentieth.

Starting around 1960, the political use of the term split into two meanings. Previously a witch hunt had always referred to the persecution of a minority, often those on the political left, by those in power. But in the second half of the twentieth century the term also began to be used to refer to investigations and prosecutions of government officials by the opposition.

The rise of this newer meaning is ironic. Previously the term had applied to oppressed groups, notably women. But the new sense is that of the politically powerful and privileged assuming the mantle of victimhood.

The earliest use of witch hunt that I’ve found is from 1881. It’s an account in the Manchester Guardian of a Halloween celebration attended by Queen Victoria and Princess Beatrice. Here the hunt was more of a party game:

The effigy was then dragged from the car and tossed into the flames amidst the shrieks and howls of the spectators, from 300 to 400 in number. A witch hunt followed, and was the cause of much merriment. Refreshments were served in abundance to all and sundry.

This antedates the earliest cite in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is from H. R. Haggard’s 1885 novel King Solomon’s Mines:

To-night ye will see. It is the great witch-hunt, and many will be smelt out as wizards and slain.

The earliest figurative and political use I can find of the term is from 1900 in reference to French Canadians. In a pair of articles, again in the Manchester Guardian, on the Canadian federal election of that year, reporter Harold Spender wrote on 30 October 1900:

But more serious for the moment is the loyalist witch-hunt. You would imagine that Englishmen would be content with the proud consciousness of these people’s [i.e., French Canadian’s] allegiance.

And on the next day:

Well, that was the sort of attack Mr. Tarte had to meet—an attack which would, in the zeal of a witch-hunt, turn these innocent sayings into treasonable utterances.

Within two decades the term began to be used in the United States, first in the context of the Red Scare following the Russian Revolution. From the Chicago Tribune of 8 March 1919:

Col. Raymond Robins of Chicago, former head of the American Red Cross mission in Russia, warned the senate propaganda investigating committee today that no headway would be made in trying to check bolshevism by “witch hunt” methods.

Many of the twentieth-century uses of the term are in the context of prosecuting alleged communists, as in the earliest political sense that is cited by the OED , from George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia:

Rank-and-file Communists everywhere are led away on a senseless witch-hunt after “Trotskyists.”

But the term was not limited to political groups. A 26 January 1934 Associated Press article quotes National Recovery Act administrator Hugh S. Johnson using the term to refer to those who engage in fraud:

Johnson said he wished to add a note of warning to the few who think it clever to “outsmart Uncle Sam.”

“There are a thousand more pressing problems in the recovery program at the moment than a witch hunt. But let there be no mistake—before the statute of limitations shall have run for their chiseling, the government will have caught up with them.”

The OED first records the use of witch hunt to refer to political attacks on government officials in a 29 January 1960 Daily Telegraph article about alleged corruption by British Transportation Minister Ernest Marples:

The Opposition Front Bench do not intend to conduct a “witch-hunt” against Mr Marples over his business connections.

Here is a case of a ruling government official being investigated by the opposition minority.

And, of course, no article on witch hunt could go without referring to Donald Trump, who has elevated this particular sense to new heights. According to the Trump Twitter Archive, as of 1 May 2019, the president had tweeted witch hunt 190 times since becoming president.


Associated Press. “Johnson Will War on Big Exploiters.” New York Times, 26 January 1934, 9.

“Court and Official: The Celebration of the Halloween at Balmoral,” Manchester Guardian, 3 Nov. 1881, 5.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. witch hunt, n.

Spender, Harold. “The Canadian Elections.” Manchester Guardian, 9 Nov. 1900, 10. (Dateline: 30 October 1900).

———. “The Canadian Elections.” Manchester Guardian, 15 Nov. 1900, 10. (Dateline: 31 October 1900).

Trump Twitter Archive, Trumptwitterarchive.com. Retrieved 1 May 2019.

“Warns America to Use Care in Fighting Reds.” 8 Mar. 1919, Chicago Tribune, 2. (Dateline: 7 March 1919).

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