Q&A: Linchpin vs lynchpin

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, as always, Dean is the linchpin of the Q&As!

Q: Hi AWC, I’ve been enjoying some classic David Lynch films lately.

A: Twin Peaks?

Q: No… I’d say there were more than just two highlights…

A: Actually we meant… never mind. Where are you going with this?

Q: It got me thinking first about the word “lynch” and then “lynchpin” – or is it “linchpin”?

A: Okay, let’s see if we can Laura Palmer this topic and dispose of it quickly.

Q: Nice.

A: So “lynch” is a verb – what Macquarie Dictionary defines as “to put (a person) to death (by hanging, burning, or otherwise) by some concerted action without authority or process of law.”

Q: Sounds grim.

A: Well yes – it’s action without a legal trial. A “kangaroo court” as it were.

Q: Wait, what does tennis in the outback have to do with this?

A: Huh?

Q: My uncle Cameron lives 500km west of Wagga, off some lost highway, and he told me that his neighbour’s kangaroos used to invade his tennis court. He used the term “kangaroo court” to describe it.

A: Is this the same uncle that lives 20km south of Mildura?

Q: Yeah that’s him. Actually, come to think of it, he and the townsfolk did march to his house with pitchforks and burning torches to demand his kangaroos stop.

A: Yes, that’s more likely what he meant by “kangaroo court” – it means a court that ignores justice. Sounds like he rounded up a “lynch mob” for the kangaroo man…

Q: Yeah, but they didn’t kill him. Unlike that time with the elephant man…

A: Ahem, anyway, the word “lynch” has an interesting origin.

Q: Please, share.

A: It’s from “Lynch Law” (also called Lynch’s Law) – named after Captain William Lynch’s form of justice from around 1780. Lynch Law allowed criminals to be hanged without trial; just the agreement of a crowd.

Q: I bet those criminals were hanging on every word…

A: Nice. Lynch Law was used during the settlement of America’s West, before sheriffs rode into town.

Q: Seems like a straight story. So, what about “lynchpin”? Or is it “linchpin”? And one word or two?

A: It’s usually ONE word and while both spellings are accepted, the more common spelling is “linchpin”.

Q: So is “linchpin” preferred everywhere?

A: That’s right, in both the US and UK for a change. It has two main meanings – as an actual pin used to keep a wheel in place OR something/someone vital.

Q: Can you give me an example for the second meaning?

A: “She was such a linchpin in the organisation that she couldn’t be fired.”

Q: Sounds like my cousin Maxine. She makes these delicious blue velvet doughnuts at work; they can’t get rid of her.

A: Does she work at that bakery on Mulholland Drive?

Q: No, she’s a cop.

A: Right. Anyway, the origin of the word “linchpin” is completely unrelated to “lynch” – it comes from Old English “lynis”.

Q: Wow, gotta hand it to the Old English for boring backstories. Can’t believe I’m actually wishing for a Latin root word – they seem more wild at heart.

A: Sorry, you don’t get one this week.

Q: Want to grab some lynch? I mean, lunch?

A: Sure, those doughnuts sound tasty…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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