To boycott someone or something is to refuse to buy goods or otherwise engage in commerce with them. Boycotts are usually undertaken as a form of political or social protest.
Boycott is an eponym, or a word that comes from a person’s name. The namesake is Captain Charles Boycott, who managed the Irish estates of the Earl of Erne, an absentee landlord in County Mayo, Ireland. In September 1880, Erne’s tenants and laborers were demanding reduced rents, and Boycott evicted them. In response, the Irish Land League, under the leadership of Charles Parnell, organized the tenants and neighbors to resist the evictions, refuse to rent a farm from which someone had been evicted, refuse to work on the estate Boycott managed, and even to refuse to deliver the mail to Boycott. Boycott managed to get the autumn crop harvested, but at a loss, and by the end of the year he had resigned his post and returned to England.
The word was evidently coined by one or more of the local protesters. The first recorded use of the verb is in the Glasgow Herald of 1 November 1880. The noun appears in the Times (London) on 9 December.
The rapidity with which the word boycott caught on is astounding. It even managed to make its way into French by the end of the year. Also surprising is that the term has lasted. Most such eponyms rapidly fade as the events that inspired them recede into memory. For example, how many people still use to bork, meaning to defame someone in order to prevent them from attaining public office, a word inspired by the treatment political opponents gave U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1987. Boycott has not only survived, but most people who use the word don’t even know who Charles Boycott was.
“boycott, v. & n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton