The first Boycott

Here’s another good bit of etymology from Frank Delaney’s Ireland. Bet you didn’t know that boycott is the name of a real person.

Charles C. Boycott was a former British soldier who became the estate agent of the Earl of Erne in County Mayo, Ireland. As explained in the above dictionary entry, Boycott was chosen in the fall of 1880 to be the test case for a new policy advocated by Charles Parnell, an Irish politician who wanted land reform. Any landlord who would not charge lower rents or any tenant who took over the farm of an evicted tenant would be given the complete cold shoulder by Parnell’s supporters.

Parnell had originally thought of calling his policy “ostracization” but decided that this term was too much for his constituents. Boycott eventually had to return to England, defeated by his Irish neighbors, who refused to work the estate, serve his household, deliver letters, sell him supplies, or harvest his crops. His name soon became synonymous with this practice of “ostracizing” someone from society. Nowadays, it tends to mean refusal to buy a corporation’s products.

As an added bonus, Delaney gives the origin of ostracize. The word comes from a Greek social rite. When they wanted to banish someone, they wrote his name on a shell, bone, or shard. The Greek word for “bone” is os; hence the word.

DadWords01/30/06 2 comments


Patrick • 02/01/06 3:08 AM:

Isn’t that how it always goes, though: the name comes from the rich guy, not the guy who thought it up.

Dad • 02/01/06 2:26 PM:

It seems natural to talk about the event in terms of the guy who got the treatment. A modern day example is the severe grilling congress gives to a Supreme Court nominee. Years ago, Robert Bork failed to be confirmed after heated questioning by congress. Now the term for anyone given similar treatment is the he/she got “Borked.”

Are there other examples you can come up with?

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