Boycott

The Word Boycott Entered the Language Thanks to Irish Land Agitation

Illustration of protest of the Irish Land League
A protest rally of the Irish Land League. Getty Images

The word "boycott" entered the English language because of a dispute between a man named Boycott and the Irish Land League in 1880.

Captain Charles Boycott was a British Army veteran who worked as a landlord's agent, a man whose job was to collect rents from tenant farmers on an estate in northwest Ireland. At the time, landlords, many of whom were British, were exploiting Irish tenant farmers. And as part of a protest, the farmers on the estate where Boycott worked demanded a reduction in their rents.

Boycott refused their demands, and evicted some tenants. The Irish Land League advocated that people in the area not attack Boycott, but rather use a new tactic: refuse to do business with him at all.

This new form of protest was effective, as Boycott wasn't able to get workers to harvest crops. And by the end of 1880 newspapers in Britain began using the word.

A front-page article in the New York Times on December 6, 1880, referred to the affair of "Capt. Boycott" and used the term "boycottism" to describe tactics of the Irish Land League.

Research in American newspapers indicates that the word crossed the ocean during the 1880s. In the late 1880s "boycotts" in America were being referred to in the pages of the New York Times. The word was generally used to denote labor actions against businesses.

For example, the Pullman Strike of 1894 became a national crisis when a boycott of railroads brought the nation's rail system to a halt.

Captain Boycott died in 1897, and an article in the New York Times on June 22, 1897, noted how his name had become a common word:

"Capt. Boycott became famous through the application of his name to the relentless social and business ostracism first practiced by the Irish peasantry against the detested representatives of landlordism in Ireland. Although a descendant of an old Essex County family in England, Capt. Boycott was an Irishman by birth. He made his appearance in County Mayo in 1863 and according to James Redpath, he had not lived there five years before he won the reputation of being the worst land agent in that section of the country."

The 1897 newspaper article also provided an account of the tactic that would take his name. It described how Charles Stewart Parnell proposed a plan to ostracize land agents during a speech in Ennis, Ireland, in 1880. And it described in detail how the tactic was utilized against Captain Boycott:

"When the Captain sent for the tenantry on the estates for which he was agent to cut the oats, the whole neighborhood combined in a refusal to work for him. Boycott's herdsmen and drivers were sought out and persuaded to strike, his female servants were induced to leave him, and his wife and children were obliged to do all of the house and farm work themselves.

"Meanwhile his oats and corn remained standing, and his stock would have been unfed had he not exerted himself night and day to attend to their wants. Next the village butcher and grocer declined to sell provisions to Capt. Boycott or his family, and when he sent to neighboring towns for supplies he found it absolutely impossible to get anything. There was no fuel in the house, and nobody would cut turf or carry coal for the Captain's family. He had to tear up floors for firewood."

The tactic of boycotting was adapted to other social movements in the 20th century.

One of the most significant protest movements in American history, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, demonstrated the power of the tactic.

To protest segregation on city buses, African American residents of Montgomery, Alabama, refused to patronize the buses for more than 300 days from late 1955 to late 1956. The bus boycott inspired the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and changed the course of American history.

Over time the word has become quite common, and its connection to Ireland and the land agitation of the late 19th century has been generally forgotten.

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McNamara, Robert. "Boycott." ThoughtCo, Feb. 28, 2017, thoughtco.com/definition-of-boycott-1773364. McNamara, Robert. (2017, February 28). Boycott. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-boycott-1773364 McNamara, Robert. "Boycott." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/definition-of-boycott-1773364 (accessed November 18, 2017).