Despite being such an influential social and political term, boycott is of more recent vintage than many people realize. The word, which can be used as either a noun or a verb, refers to the practice of ‘withdrawing from commercial or social relations with (a country, organization, or person) as a punishment or protest’. Boycott is also the rare word that we can trace to an exact origin, first appearing in the autumn of 1880, during the Irish Land War.
At the time, the Irish Land League was advocating for better conditions on behalf of the tenant farmers in rural Ireland, pushing back against the wealthy landlords and agents who controlled the land. One particularly effective tactic the League developed was ostracizing the land agents and those who associated with them, which offered communities away to combat those in power that was both legal and nonviolent.
This tactic of ostracizing ultimately took its name from one of its earliest victims: Captain Charles C. Boycott (1832-97), one of the land agents. In its entry for boycott, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) quotes from an article in the 25 September issue of the Dublin newspaper Freeman’s Journal:
The multitude…rushed to Loughmask House, the residence of Captain Boycott, the agent on the estate, and the party against whom the popular ire was chiefly directed, and in a very short time every labourer and servant employed on or around the place was driven off and cautioned not to work there again.
It was not long before newspapers enthusiastically turned ‘Boycott’ into an eponymous word, employing it to broadly refer to this practice of public shunning supported by the Irish Land League. It seems that as early as December 1880, only a few months after the boycotting of Boycott, the word had acquired a wider currency, with the Illustrated London News noting that, ‘to “Boycott” has already become a verb active, signifying to “ratten”, to intimidate, to “send to Coventry”, and to ‘taboo”’. By the early 20th century, the scare quotes had disappeared and the ‘B’ had dropped down into lowercase, evidenced by a 1908 Westminster Gazette article reporting that ‘the local Labour Party is inclined to boycott preference voting’ without so much as a wink at Captain Boycott.
In fact, the word (and, presumably, the political tactic) proved so popular that it was quickly adopted by other European languages, including French boycotter (1880), German boycottieren (1893; now boykottieren), Dutch boycotten (1904), and Russian bojkotirovat (1891).
In the age of social media, the word boycott remains as viable as ever, and its use in hashtags – such as #BoycottDolceGabbana – enables such protests to spread around the globe at a rate which would have been unimaginable to the original boycotters.