From VOA Learning English, this is Words and Their Stories.
Each week we report on words and expressions commonly used in American English. We explain their meanings, their roots and how they are currently used.
Today we talk a word that comes to English through the Irish. That word is boycott.
Boycott can be used as both a noun and a verb. As a verb, boycott means to refuse to do something as a form of protest. People who boycott something are often looking for social, economic or political change.
As a noun, the word boycott has a somewhat different meaning. People stop using goods or services during a boycott until changes are made.
In fact, that is just how the word entered the English language. It began with a man’s name.
In the mid-1800s, a young man named Charles Boycott (1832-1897) served in the British army. After retiring, he worked as a land agent for the owner of a large country estate in Ireland.
At that time, Ireland was under British rule. It was Boycott’s job to collect money from tenant farmers who grew crops on the estate.
The farmers demanded lower rents. Boycott refused. Not only did he refuse to lower their rents, he evicted some farmers, meaning he kicked them out of their homes.
All these issues – evictions, high rents and absentee landlords -- caused a dispute between Boycott and the local community. In particular, Boycott clashed with a man named Michael Davitt.
In 1879, Davitt founded a group called the Land League. The league organized Irish resistance to absent and abusive landlords. It sought to help tenant farmers by securing fair rents and other rights of occupancy.
Davitt suggested to the farmers that instead of attacking Captain Boycott, they should simply refuse to do business with him.
This form of protest proved very effective. Boycott’s workers and servants refused to carry out his orders. The crops in his fields went bad -- they rotted on the vine -- because nobody would harvest them. Reports even say some businesses would not take his money. The community turned their back on the Boycott family and they were forced to move.
By the end of 1880, some British newspapers began using Boycott’s name when reporting on a protest of unfair methods or actions. The usage quickly spread.
The term boycott crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed in American newspapers. By the late 1880s, The New York Times was reporting on boycotts. The word was generally used to describe labor protests against businesses.
These days, consumers are able to use their buying power to boycott businesses they consider unethical or abusive. Companies found to be mistreating their employees, breaking labor deals or polluting the environment can quickly find themselves in the middle of a boycott.
The origin of the word “boycott” serves as a reminder: treat people fairly. Otherwise, your last name may become a word people use when they protest.
And that brings us to the end of Words and Their Stories. If you did not like this subject, please do not boycott the program.
Simply go to our website, learningenglish.voanews.com, and leave your suggestions in the Comments section.
I’m Anna Matteo. Have a great day!
Anna Matteo wrote this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor. The song heard at the end of the program is Sinead O'Connor singing, "This is a Rebel Song."
Try using "boycott" in a sentence or let us know the word for “boycott” is your country.
Words and Their Stories
evict – v. to put (a tenant) out by legal process : to force (someone) to leave a place
absentee – adj. a proprietor that lives away from his or her estate or business
particular – adj. used to indicate that one specific person or thing is being referred to and no others
turned their back – phrase to stop being involved with someone or something
buying power – phrase to acquire possession, ownership, or rights to the use or services of by payment especially of money : purchase
unethical – adj. not following accepted rules of behavior : not morally right and good