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Boycott

Q From Jennifer in the USA: I searched for the word boycott on your site but could not find anything. A television program recently said, I believe, that it was about the Revolutionary War and the boycott of British taxes.

A Wrong period and wrong country, I’m afraid. No one who organised a boycott at that time could have used the word, because it only appeared in the language in 1880. It’s an excellent example of an eponym, a word based on a proper name, like wellington boots, garibaldi biscuits or the mackintosh.

Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott was an Englishman working in Ireland. In the 1870s he was farming at Loughmask in County Mayo and serving as a land agent for an absentee English landlord, Lord Earne. This was the time of the campaign organised by the Irish Land League for reform of the system of landholdings. In September 1880, protesting tenants demanded that Captain Boycott give them a substantial reduction in their rents. He refused. Charles Stuart Parnell, the President of the Land League, suggested in a speech that the way to force Boycott to give way was for everyone in the locality to refuse to have any dealings with him. Labourers would not work for him, local shops stopped serving him (food had to be brought in from elsewhere for him and his family), and he even had great trouble getting his letters delivered. In the end, his crops were harvested that autumn through the help of fifty volunteers from the north of the country, who worked under the protection of nine hundred soldiers.

The events aroused so much passion that his name became an instant byword. It was first used — in our modern sense of collective and organised ostracism — in the Times of London in November 1880, even while his crops were still being belatedly harvested; within weeks it was everywhere. It was soon adopted by newspapers throughout Europe, with versions of his name appearing in French, German, Dutch and Russian. By the time of the Captain’s death in 1897, it had become a standard part of the English language.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 4 Mar. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 4 March 2000.