A view from Dave Trott: People create language
A view from Dave Trott

People create language

When he was young, Captain Charles Boycott wanted to make his name.

It didn’t happen in the army so he tried being a land agent in Ireland.

In 1880, he was overseeing 1,500 acres in County Mayo for absentee landlord the Earl of Erne.

That year had been a bad harvest and tenant farmers asked for a 25% reduction in rent.

Furious at their impertinence, Charles Boycott evicted 11 of them.

Charles Parnell, of the Irish National Land League, made a speech demanding the following: "Shun him on the roadside. Shun him on the streets of town. Shun him in the shops. Shun him on the village green. Shun him in the place of worship."

And so began the process of shunning Charles Boycott.

No farmhand would work for him, no servant, no carriage driver, no laundress, no cook, no blacksmith.

No shop would serve him, no postman would deliver.

Charles Boycott was so thoroughly shunned that his crops rotted in the fields.

Eventually, 50 Ulstermen had to be sent to harvest the crops, protected by 900 soldiers.

It cost £10,000 to harvest £500 of crops.

It couldn’t continue, and it didn’t.

Charles Boycott was systematically shunned out of Ireland.

This was the first time such an event had occurred, and there wasn’t a name for it.

At least not a name that ordinary folk would remember.

"Systematic ostracising" would be the correct description, but no-one was going to remember that.

So they did what ordinary folk do: they used the handiest word.

That’s how language develops. 

The handiest word happened to be the name of the person involved.

And in the newspapers – The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The New York Times – the name "Boycott" began to take on a new meaning.

In the Oxford English Dictionary, "boycott" is now defined as: "Withdrawing from commercial or social relations as a punishment or protest."

And so the word "boycott" passed into the language.

But not just into the English language.

In French, the word is "boycotter". In Dutch, it’s "boycotten". In German, it’s "boykottieren". In Spanish, it’s "biocotear". In Russian, it’s "bojkotirovat". And in Japanese, it’s "boikotto".

Boycott is now part of many languages.

A recent advertising headline talks about AT&T, Verizon, Pepsi, Walmart and Johnson & Johnson "boycotting" Google. 

A new app, Buycott.com, allows smartphones to scan barcodes.

Its one million users can search 20 million barcodes and find out if any product is in conflict with their values.

So they can boycott it.

In fact, the word boycott was even used by Chris Rock at the 2016 Oscars ceremony.

He mentioned Will Smith’s wife, Jada, who had decided to boycott the Oscars.

He said: "Jada said she’s not coming. I was like: ‘Isn’t she on a TV show?’ Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited!"

Which of course got a big laugh.

And so, eventually, Captain Charles Boycott did make his name.

Just not quite in the way he intended. 

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three.