The history and origin of the word "boycott". By English with Stephen

Word Stories: Boycott

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Hello and welcome to Learning English with Stephen, the podcast that gives you everything you need to learn English as quickly and effectively as possible. In today’s episode, I am going to tell you a story about the history of the word ‘boycott’. It is a story that started in Ireland but very quickly spread around the world.

But first, a musical interlude.

Next week I will be releasing my 10th episode. To celebrate, I have decided to answer any questions you might have about me, the English language, or learning English. I`ve already received some great questions, but it isn’t too late to submit your questions. You can leave me a comment on my Facebook or Instagram pages, or go to my site EnglishwithStephe.com

And now, onto our word story.

There’s a website called indifferentlanguages.com which shows how you say different words in different languages. The other day, I put the English word ‘boycott’ into the website and I was amazed at the results: at least 54 other languages have a word that either looks or sounds something similar to the original in English. These languages are diverse in geography and size and include languages like Albanian, Japanese, and Yoruba.

Before we look at the origins of the word ‘boycott’ it is perhaps best if we clarify what it means. When a word is borrowed into another language it can change its meaning, sometimes in very subtle ways, so let’s just make sure we all understand how it is used in English today.

‘Boycott’ can be a noun or a regular verb. The online Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as ‘refusing to buy a product or refusing to take part in an activity as a way of expressing strong disapproval.’

I remember the first time I came across this word. It was 1982 and I was 8 years old. I had two great sporting obsessions at that age; football and cricket. If you have never heard of cricket, then there is not enough time to explain how it works. It is probably enough to say that it is kind of like baseball, but far better. It can last for 5 days and still end in a draw. It is played mainly by countries that were in the British empire, like Australia, India, Pakistan, various islands in the Caribbean, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka. And South Africa.

In 1982, South Africa was still governed by the apartheid system. This was the system that dictated that black people were treated as inferior people to the white community, just because they were black. At the age of 8, I didn’t know too much about the world, but I knew that that just had to be wrong.

Many people and countries around the world were trying to put pressure on South Africa to change its laws. One way of doing this was through a sporting boycott. Sportspeople and teams around the world refused to play in South Africa until they allowed black Africans the same rights as white South Africans.

As a result, there had not been any international cricket played in South Africa for over 12 years, until they managed to pay a number of prominent English players to rebel and go play in South Africa. All the players who rebelled and played for money from the South Africa regime were banned from the English game. It was all over the news at the time about how the ‘dirty dozen’ English payers and broken the boycott. I must admit to being slightly confused at the time because one of the players on the English side was called Geoff Boycott.

And this offers us an insight into where the word originated because it is the name of a person, one Captain Charles C. Boycott.

It is 1880 and Ireland is in the middle of the Land Law. This was an attempt to improve the conditions of the Irish people who were working on farms owned by the British aristocracy. These British were often known as absent landlords because, while they owned the land they didn’t live in Ireland. Instead, they employed agents to look after their land and make sure it was productive and profitable. The landlords in Britain usually didn’t care what happened on their land, just so long as they got their money.

Captain Charles C. Boycott was one such agent. He had a reputation as a cruel man in the area around County Mayo in the south of Ireland. He evicted tenants when they couldn’t afford to pay their rent because of a bad harvest. He then looked for other people to replace them and finish gathering the harvest. The only problem for him was that the local people decided to come together and refuse to replace the people who had been evicted. More than this, they also decided to ostracise him in all areas of life; the local people refused to talk to him, serve him in shops, or even deliver his post.

The policy of refusing to interact with someone was quickly reported in newspapers in Ireland and England, and it didn’t take long before Boycott’s name was being used around the world to signify protest and dislike of the way a person, company, or country behaves.

So that’s all from me today. I’d love to hear about any boycotts you have been involved in. Please leave a comment and let me know if they were successful or not and what you did as part of the boycott.

And don’t forget, go to my site EnglishwithStephen.com to leave your questions so I can answer them next week. At that site, you will also find interesting links associated with this story, as well as the transcript so you can read and listen at the same time and find any words that you don’t understand.

Goodbye and good luck!

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