The 2016 presidential race has been lacking in many things, but name-calling is not one of them. Beyond the tried-and-true–demagogue, jerk, idiot, racist, sexist, and xenophobe–less common monikers have been hurled during this toxic election season. Making that list are Trump’s well-known branded insults: Lyin’ Ted, Low Energy Jeb, Little Marco, Choke Artist, Goofy Elizabeth Warren, and Crooked Hillary.
The businessman has also been on the receiving end of the name slinging fest. He’s been tagged the Tangerine Tornado, the Orange Menace, and the Orange Mannequin. Beyond these color-themed names is Gollum, a bald and unsavory character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Gollum also recalls Golem–the uncultivated, mud-like character in Jewish folklore.
Not to be left out of the name game, Bernie Sanders has received a moniker of his own–Grumpy Grandpa–a name sounding more like a character out of Snow White than a contender for the world’s toughest job.
But of all the names in this tumultuous election season, one has stood out for its sheer meanness, blatant misogyny, and historical ugliness. That word is “witch”—an insult lobbed with disturbing frequency at Hillary Clinton.
In fact, some of the Internet’s more unhinged users have gone even farther. In their eyes, she is no ordinary witch, but a “6th level Illuminati witch and sadistic Monarch slave handler.” I haven’t a clue what that is (nor do I want to know) but it sounds downright scary.
Unfortunately, when it comes to Hillary, the rabid right, Internet trolls, and Twitter sock puppets aren’t the only ones dabbling in the linguistic dark arts—“progressives” have also added their voices to this unsavory chorus.
One particularly pernicious example was the “Bern the Witch” slogan created for a 2015 Sander’s rally scheduled to take place around Halloween. And while this slogan and related rhetoric were eventually disavowed by the Sander’s campaign, the expression remains alive and well on Twitter, Facebook, and other online spaces.
Obviously Clinton is not the first politician to face this kind of extreme name-calling.
Over the last years, the right wing has hurled epithets at President Obama that boggle the mind utterly, especially in light of the fact that he is one of the most ethical, intelligent, and principled presidents ever to occupy the Oval Office.
Still, the diversity of those labeling Clinton a “witch” suggests there is more going on here than political rivalry. And what that is, is not difficult to see.
While the English word “witch” has a complex genealogy, and theorists remain unsure of its actual derivation, proposed etymologies bring up a slew of words that point to strong, powerful, and wise females.
In fact, the association between witches and wisdom can be seen in their companion animal–the owl. Because the owl was paired with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, it evolved into an emblem of erudition throughout the western world.
And just as wise women have been transformed into old hags (a word derived from Old English Haegtesse, meaning “witch or fury”), Athena’s small and graceful bird morphed into the large and spooky-eyed creature we now associate with witches.
While anthropologists and historians are not in agreement about the forces that turned wise and strong women into witches, one theory posits that knowledgeable, outspoken, and non-conformist women (and in many cases girls) were perceived of as destructive threats to church and state. In the eyes of their accusers, these women subverted social convention.
Given her strength and ambition, Hillary can be construed as an extreme expression of female power. This might partially explain why so many have pilloried her as a witch. Sadly, the ugly labeling of her as a “witch” during the primaries will no doubt escalate now that she is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
Since antiquity, names have been known for their ability to influence. This is why some companies and entrepreneurs are willing to pay thousands of dollars to branding professionals to develop the right mark for their company or product.
Because of the power of names, it is crucial for political candidates and opponents to sternly rebuke their followers when they cross the line between garden-variety slurs and those stained with the blood of history.
The traditional children’s chant: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me” is simply not true. Name-calling can hurt, and hurt badly. When we unleash our verbal fury on politicians who, like Hillary, simply don’t deserve such malevolent monikers, it is the body politic that suffers.