The right word is the writer's Holy Grail. Often elusive, the mot juste is the lullaby that sends one into rapturous sleep, while its evil twin - the ill-chosen word - can have the opposite effect.
My sleep has been troubled the past few weeks by a choice of words that prompted some polite protest from some African-American readers. It was "lynch mob," which I used to refer to the public indictment and conviction of three Duke lacrosse team members who have been charged with raping a black stripper (who, I hasten to add, is a student and mother).
I was using the term to suggest that the media and a willing public were trying the young men without benefit of due process. Even knowing how provocative the word can be, I justified using it because its original meaning was closer to my intent than to the more modern understanding of "lynching" associated with slavery and Jim Crow.
The word "lynch" dates back to the American Revolution thanks to one Col. Charles Lynch, who took justice into his own hands to punish loyalists. Lynch held his own court and punished those he deemed deserving. Punishment usually involved flogging, but no one was ever killed.
Fast-forward, and lynching earned a new and horrific meaning familiar to all Americans. Between roughly the end of Reconstruction and the Great Depression, there were 2,805 documented lynchings in 10 Southern states, according to Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck, authors of "A Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930."
Other estimates including undocumented lynchings come closer to 5,000. Although several hundred whites were lynched, most victims were blacks killed by white mobs. This painful period in our history is so agonizing to recall that we may be forgiven for wanting to avert our gaze.
No apology will ever be adequate for the crimes committed. Likewise, some of my readers said, no use of the word "lynching" or "lynch mob" can be justified to describe lesser events.
Their argument rests on the premise that such extreme suffering grants reluctant ownership of the word to the victim group. African-Americans "own" lynching in the same way Jews "own" the Holocaust.
In the wake of 9/11, many writers used the word "holocaust" to describe the events at the World Trade Center's Twin Towers. Indeed, what we witnessed meets the technical definition of "holocaust," which Merriam-Webster describes as (1) a sacrifice consumed by fire; (2) thorough destruction involving extensive loss of life, especially through fire."