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.

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