The New Yorker’s (March 6 issue) article that came under the title, “Trumpcare vs. Obamacare” begins with the following paragraph;

The pitchforks are changing hands. In 2009, it was Democratic members of Congress supporting health-care reform who were set upon by outraged constituents. When they passed the Affordable Care Act anyway, it cost their party control of Congress in the 2010 midterm elections

– and ends up with the statement:

But legislators have no time to waste. Insurers must decide by April whether to offer a plan for the exchanges in 2018, and at what price. That requires certainty about the future. Pitchforks have their uses, but crafting health-care policy calls for more delicate instruments. The basic functioning of the health-care system is at stake. So are American lives.

Oxford online dictionary defines “pitchfork” simply as a noun meaning a farm tool with a long hand and two sharp metal prongs used for lifting hay, without showing any idiomatic usages.

I suspect “the pitchforks” here refers to the efforts / attempts/ measures to reform (healthcare) system. I may be wrong. I don’t understand what “the pitchforks" here represents for, and what “the pitchforks change hands” and “pitchforks have their uses” exactly mean?

Are both of them popular idioms, or the writer’s particular turn of phrases?


3 Answers 3


It's a metaphor for an angry mob, which are traditionally armed with pitchforks and torches in older stories.

"Pitchforks changed hands" basically means that the group that is angry is the oppositional group to the previous one.

"Pitchforks can be useful" means that it sometimes helps your cause to get angry, but the author thinks that it would be more productive to focus that energy somewhere positive.

  • 1
    Yeah, in old US westerns (movies), when an angry crowd was surrounding the courthouse or wherever, they were always shown as armed with pitchforks.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 2:36
  • 1
    It was also the traditional weapon of the devil. And some American readers might associate this popular art work made in 1930 with the concept of "affordable care" - artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/6565
    – alephzero
    Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 7:14
  • 22
    It goes back a lot further than westerns - in olden times, back to the mediaeval age at least, common peasants couldn't afford weapons beyond their farming implements, so they had to use what was available to them (sickles, scythes, pitchforks, hammers, small knives and hunting bows). This is also why many of these things symbolise the common people (think of the USSR's hammer and sickle logo). You also see this in any movies where the town forms a mob to tackle a corrupt local official or criminal (such as the aforementioned western), or a witch, or a Viktor Frankenstein, or a Count Dracula.
    – flith
    Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 7:15
  • 5
    Yah. It's the same with us. Farmers' riots that occurred frequently in medieval age in Japan employed sickles, axes and ground-breakers as weapons. Farmers didn't have swords, archeries, nor lances. Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 8:30
  • 2
    It's worth noting that the phrases in the question are not common English-language idioms. The writer is expecting you to make the connection between pitchforks and angry mobs, and wants you to imagine a novel image of the the pitchfork being passed from one mob to another. Compare with the common phrase "passing the baton", referring to a relay race.
    – slim
    Commented Feb 28, 2017 at 13:36

There actually is an idiomatic English phrase "torches and pitchforks" that appears in longer expressions such as "They'll come after us with torches and pitchforks" and "the townspeople will be at your door with torches and pitchforks." As flith notes in a comment above, the image is of simple villagers or country folk responding to something terrifying or outrageous by grabbing the most effective weapons they have at hand and approaching the danger or enemy en masse.

The phrase "torches and pitchforks" coalesced relatively recently, but examples of the frightened and unruly crowd bearing rustic implements goes back considerably farther. For example, from Frederick Whymper, "Adventures Above the Clouds," in Good Words for 1883 (1883):

Next afternoon [August 23, 1783] it [the hot-air balloon] was launched [in Paris], and rose to a considerable height in spite of the heavy rain which was falling. The excitement was so intense that fashionably dressed ladies allowed themselves to be drenched to the skin rather than lose the wonderful sight. When it fell near the village of Gonesse, about fifteen miles from Paris, it caused considerable alarm.

"It is supposed by many to have come from another world; many fly; others, more sensible, think it a monstrous bird. After it has alighted there is yet motion in it from the gas it still contains. A small crowd gains courage from numbers, and for an hour approaches by gradual steps, hoping meanwhile the monster will take flight. At length one bolder than the rest takes his gun, stalks carefully within shot, fires, witnesses the monster shrink, gives a shout of triumph, and the crowd rushes in with flails and pitchforks. One tears what he thinks to be the skin, and causes a poisonous stench; again all retire. Shame, no doubt, now urges them on, and they tie the cause of alarm to a horse's tail, who gallops across the country, tearing it to shreds."

The quoted language from an eyewitness account written in 1783 shows the role of pitchforks in a gathering of disturbed villagers. The role of torches in "torches and pitchforks" is evident in this clip from Frankenstein (1931).

But the precise idiomatic phrase "torches and pitchforks" appears in Google Books search results from as early as 1958. From Warren Miller, The Way We Live Now (1958):

But Lionel remembered it. He had been here once before, with Nicholas. He remembered the door most clearly of all. The first time he saw it, amazed at its height and thickness, its barred strength, he had a vision of an enraged peasantry with torches and pitchforks advancing, singing revolutionary songs.

The level of use of "torches and pitchforks" is not large, but there are enough matches to support an Ngram chart that shows usage increasing fairly continuously since 1985:

In any event, the word pitchforks sometimes appears without torches but with the same sense of grassroots unrest among an unsophisticated but potentially dangerous (and perhaps even revolutionary) portion of the citizenry.

As neko's answer points out, the identity of the pitchfork bearers in the United States has shifted from disgruntled anti-Obama Tea Partiers eight years ago to disgruntled anti-Trump demonstrators in recent weeks. The overlap in group membership is probably quite small, but the (figurative) pitchforks they wield are (according to the author) much the same.

  • 1
    It is, I believe, an American English idiom. I don't think the Brits use it at all, although its meaning is apparent. I'm not sure what the British equivalent would be. Perhaps "rise up in arms" or "be up in arms"
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 10:32
  • @Mari-LouA - As a Brit I completely recognise and understand the imagery of a crowd with pitchforks, mainly from Frankenstein/Dracula type scenarios.
    – AndyT
    Commented Feb 27, 2017 at 12:27

Neko and Sven have thoroughly covered this question; I'm supplying the graphics.

Torches and Pitchforks

enter image description here

'Let's go get AIG!': Stephen Colbert called for an angry pitchfork-wielding mob to attack AIG bosses on his Comedy Central show earlier this week (March 17, 2009) The Mail Online

from The Guardian

He reminded viewers that America's founding fathers knew that "when the rights of the people get trampled, we must become a torch-and-pitchfork-wielding mob, empty of all thought".

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