Words, Words, Words

A writer, I often like to turn to a dictionary when I’m attempting to learn about something. This project is no different. So, I consulted, first, the Oxford English Dictionary, widely accepted as the authority on the English language. The OED not only defines words, but digs into their history. I wanted to understand a bit about the history of the word, “riot.”

Here, the definition of riot that is most appropriate to this project is this:

  • A violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd; an outbreak of violent civil disorder or lawlessness. Formerly also: a violent attack (obs.).

The first evidence of the word in use comes from middle English sometime before 1393.

The term, “race riot,” on the other hand was first documented in 1880. “Saturday night a race riot broke out in the lower part of Newcastle..between gangs of Irishmen, Poles, and Slavacks.” This comes form a September 10 article in the Davenport Morning Tribune, an Iowa publication.

I imagine that what comes to mind when one things race riot depends on your experiences, what you’ve read, what you’ve heard, what you’ve seen. The first thing that comes to my mind upon thinking about race riots, for some reason is Watts, which, frankly, has as much to do with my abnormal love for President Lyndon Johnson than anything else. Then, my mind will jump to the LA riots of 1992. See, I was in middle school during that time. This event happened during my formative years. Finally, remembering that I’m a Michigander, I think “Detroit!” It’s a toss-up between 1943 or 1967. Either might come up.

But, the history major in me knows that the history is much longer, and both the entries for “riot,” and “race riot,” help paint that picture.

One of the things that I noticed as I pulled together the preliminary list of riots is that some of them had multiple names. In fact, you may have noticed, upon examining the list, that I didn’t often give one of these occurrences a name; I just state the location where it took place and the year it took place. Some of these events were described as disturbances or massacres. Some of them are described differently based on which account of the event you’re reading. I left them all on the list, as I couldn’t really tell how a riot differed from a massacre, especially for most of the events that preceded 1900.

The other thing I can’t quite figure out what to do with for this project are lynchings. In the cursory preliminary research that I did in order to come up with my preliminary list, I can’t tell you how many times I came across tales of lynchings. Nor knowing what to do, I consulted the OED again.

  •  trans. To condemn and punish by lynch law. In early use, implying chiefly the infliction of punishment such as whipping, tarring and feathering, or the like; now only, to inflict sentence of death by lynch law.

I was surprised to find this. I thought that I was going to find a reference to a Charles Lynch here. I thought that I was going to be lead directly to some definition that helped to frame the phenomenon of American lynchings. I moved on over to the definition for lynch law. Here’s what I found:

Forms:  Also Lynch law; in early use Lynch’s (Linch’s) law.

Orig. U.S.

  •   The practice of inflicting summary punishment upon an offender, by a self-constituted court armed with no legal authority; it is now limited to the summary execution of one charged with some flagrant offen[s]e.‘The origin of the expression has not been determined. It is often asserted to have arisen from the proceedings of Charles Lynch, a justice of the peace in Virginia, who in 1782 was indemnified by an act of the Virginia Assembly for having illegally fined and imprisoned certain Tories in 1780. But Mr. Albert Matthews informs us that no evidence has been adduced to show that Charles Lynch was ever concerned in acts such as those which from 1817 onward were designated as “Lynch’s law”. It is possible that the perpetrators of these acts may have claimed that in the infliction of punishments not sanctioned by the laws of the country they were following the example of Lynch, which had been justified by the act of indemnity; or there may have been some other man of this name who was a ring-leader in such proceedings. Some have conjectured that the term is derived from the name of Lynche’s Creek, in South Carolina, which is known to have been in 1768 a meeting-place of the “Regulators”, a band of men whose professed object was to supply the want of regular administration of criminal justice in the Carolinas, and who committed many acts of violence on those suspected of “Toryism”.’ (N.E.D.)
First, I can’t help pointing out that this term originates here in the United States.
Everything is more complicated than it seems, isn’t it? Perhaps complicated isn’t the right word. Layers. There are always layers.
The other thing I wrestle with is what I’m talking about when I talk about a riot. How does this differ from a battle? How does this differ than a massacre? How does this differ form a rebellion?
  • A hostile engagement or encounter between opposing forces on land or sea; a combat, a fight.
  • The indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people or (less commonly) animals; carnage, butchery, slaughter in numbers; an instance of this.
  • An organized armed resistance to an established ruler or government; an uprising, a revolt
How will I learn to distinguish among them?
How much will words help?

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