Peo­ple cre­ate lan­guage

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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, Buy­, 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.

“There wasn’t a name for it. So or­di­nary folk used the hand­i­est word. It is now part of many lan­guages”

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

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