(in historical use) the investigation, trial, and punishment of alleged practitioners of witchcraft.
an intensive inquiry, originally or purportedly to discover and expose dishonesty, subversion, or other wrongdoing, the scope and conclusions of which often include and bring harm to innocent persons or their reputations through reliance on hearsay or circumstantial evidence.
to subject to a witch hunt:The defendant claimed he was being witch-hunted due to his political activism.
Historically, people were accused, tried, and punished for the practice of witchcraft in early modern Europe from the late 15th century through the mid-18th century. Many factors contributed to this dark chapter in history, from lack of scientific knowledge, high mortality rates, and natural disasters to social forces including sexism, racism, and ageism.
To understand the figurative use of witch hunt look to the most famous American example of a literal witch hunt, the Salem witch trials of 1692. Various tragedies, from untimely deaths to the loss of livestock, were blamed on "harmful magic." The first three accused in Salem were an enslaved woman, a homeless beggar, and a social outcast. As was common in witch trials, defendants confessed under duress and named confederates. The scope of the trial grew ever wider, with many innocents being convicted and sentenced to death.
The spread of accusations, the implicating of alleged accomplices, and the lack of due process and proper prosecutorial rigor made witch hunt an apt political and social metaphor in the modern era. From Senate subcommittee hearings on pro-German propaganda in the early 20th century to the House Un-American Activities Committee of McCarthyism, witch hunts are now evoked for political investigations characterized by paranoid hysteria, self-preservation, and cynical social machination.
The current use of the expression takes for granted the modern assumption that witchcraft was never a legitimate target of investigation or prosecution. The process of any historical witch hunt was therefore inherently flawed or corrupt, and the target was necessarily innocent. This anachronistic understanding is the crux of the logical fallacy often encountered in modern rhetorical use, where framing an inquiry as a witch hunt is a debate tactic used to assume the innocence of the accused and call into question the motivation and methods of accusers, without examining the substance of the accusation.
- witch hunter, noun
- witch-hunting, adjective, noun
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2024
How to use witch hunt in a sentence
Now, they can chalk the whole thing up to a partisan witch hunt and discredit it.The Response To The Jan. 6 Select Committee Paints A Worrying Picture Of Our Democracy | Sarah Frostenson (firstname.lastname@example.org) | August 2, 2021 | FiveThirtyEight
Some of the threats are likely from Netanyahu’s supporters who believe he is the victim of a political-legal witch hunt.Even if the Ceasefire Holds, the Far-Right Will Dominate Israel's Future | Dahlia Scheindlin | May 21, 2021 | Time
Agnew complained in public that it was a witch hunt, part of a liberal-media plot to destroy a leader who had dared to take on the political establishment.Vice President Agnew’s misdeeds, and the challenges of holding him accountable | Matthew Dallek | December 18, 2020 | Washington Post
This is a big, big beginning to the end of what has been a witch hunt.
In her mind, the entire ordeal was a witch-hunt led by the local authorities.
Likewise, pressure must be placed on Egypt to abandon its witch hunt of the Muslim Brotherhood.To Beat ISIS, the Arab World Must Promote Political and Religious Reforms | Rula Jebreal | September 15, 2014 | THE DAILY BEAST
DeLay dismissed the charges against Perry as a political witch hunt.
Some have dismissed the charges as nothing more than a partisan witch-hunt.
Legal proceedings are about process; so is The Witch-Hunt Narrative.How the ‘Witch Hunt’ Myth Undermined American Justice | Jason Berry | July 12, 2014 | THE DAILY BEAST
Nor were the police and the press the only perpetrators of this modern witch hunt.Emma Goldman | Charles A. Madison
British Dictionary definitions for witch-hunt
a rigorous campaign to round up or expose dissenters on the pretext of safeguarding the welfare of the public
- witch-hunter, noun
- witch-hunting, noun, adjective
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012