Skip to content

On Captain Boycott

On page 99 of THE STUFF OF THOUGHT, author/Professor Steven Pinker nonchalantly includes "boycott" in a list of eponymous verbs (and mentions that the person who inspired them has been long forgotten). He moves on and I’m frantic.

Boycott? Eponymous? Where’ve I been?

I begin to feel like this might be one of those precious moments when I can actually get my money’s worth from the Oxford English Dictionary (at a steep, just-under $300/year).

I log in and learn of Captain Boycott, an Irish landlord who was the original victim of the treatment we have now come to call the boycott. (And because a person/surname inspired the word, nearly all of the early references to boycotting, boycotts and boycottees were capitalized).

To combine in refusing to hold relations of any kind, social or commercial, public or private, with (a neighbour), on account of political or other differences, so as to punish him for the position he has taken up, or coerce him into abandoning it. The word arose in the autumn of 1880, to describe the action instituted by the Irish Land League towards those who incurred its hostility. It was speedily adopted by the newspapers in nearly every European language (e.g. F. boycotter, Du. boycotten, Ger. boycottiren, Russ. bokottrovat, etc.).

Meanwhile, for an unsteep cost of . . . nothing, I go to Wikipedia, which I have used maybe three times in my life, and find a far more thorough explanation of the history of Boycott, and I’m feeling profoundly underserved by the OED (not a new feeling, by the way).

Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott (1832-1897) was his full name, and although the term wasn’t coined until the action against him (which worked, by the way, resulting in him fleeing Ireland for England), the actions we have come to associate with the boycott date back to at least 1830.

To add further humiliation to my dearth of knowledge about the boycott, a film called CAPTAIN BOYCOTT was made in 1947 and tells the whole flippin’ story!

Please note that neither nor Netflix carry the film, so you’ll have to find it elsewhere if compelled to check it out.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Strange coincidence. I post "A more efficient alternative to eradicating laws however is peaceful civil disobedience and public boycotts" in an animal rights forum, then I visit your blog and what do I find? A post about boycott!

    February 27, 2008
  2. Dan #

    This is a little off-topic, but I’ve never accepted the term “boycott” in association with being vegan. Maybe I’m wrong in my view of the word boycott, but I’ve always considered “boycotting” something to be a *conditional* refusal to stop buying, using, etc, rather than an unconditional refusal.

    If my understanding of the word is correct, then I am not boycotting animal products any more than I’m boycotting the consumption of human flesh. It’s not like if we find a way to give animals wonderful lives and then painlessly slaughter them (i.e. meet certain conditions) that I would go back to eating flesh. As long as I can survive without eating anyone’s flesh or bodily fluids (human or nonhuman), I will always be vegan. So my veganism is not a boycott; it’s a permanent way of life which is as unconditional as my refusal to engage in cannibalism.

    February 27, 2008
  3. Of course, I have to agree with Dan, except that my comment was more general, to include products that do not necessarily have to include non-human body parts or other animal exploitation.

    One does not boycott meat or dairy, since meat and dairy are inherently exploitative and rights-violating.

    But one can boycott products that are tested on animals or places that include (but are not limited to) animal exploitation.

    February 29, 2008

Leave a Reply

You may use basic HTML in your comments. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS