How Captain Charles Boycott Unwittingly Gave the Word Boycott to the English Language

Ever wondered where the word boycott comes from?

The short answer – from Ireland, where it was first applied to ostracize Captain Charles Cunnigham Boycott, the enforcer of an English landowner in 1880.

But why Boycott? Why not use ostracize?

Because the organizers of the protest felt that “ostracize” was too big a word for the poor Irish peasantry to understand. 

So they decided to come up with a better word that would best describe what they were about to do, which was to ostracize a man named Charles Boycott.

They thought, and they thought. And when they couldn’t come up with anything better, they used the man’s name itself.

Captain Charles Boycott thus had the singular misfortune of having his own name used to describe the uniquely unfortunate situation of his own social ostracization.

It’s like getting hit on the head with your own walking stick. But such is life.

Who Was Captain Charles Boycott

Charles Cunningham Boycott was born in 1832 to a priest and a homemaker in Norfolk England. The family’s original last name was Boycatt, but shortly after Charles’ birth, the family had it changed to Boycott for some reason.

Young Charles wanted to join the army, and in 1848 joined the elite Royal Military College in Woolwich. However, in what was to be a foreboding of the series of unfortunate events that was to be the trajectory of poor Charles’ life, he got kicked out of the academy within one year after failing to clear his academic exams. 

Life only went downhill from this moment onwards for poor young Charles Boycott. 

In 19th century England, if you failed to get into the army the straight way, you could also buy your way into it. This practice was called “purchasing a commission”.

This was what young Charles’ family did next. They bought him a commission in the army for a princely sum of 450 pounds, equivalent to 45000 pounds or 55000 USD today.

Charles Boycott barely spent two years in the Army, rising to the rank of Captain, until he fell ill while posted in Belfast, Ireland. Life in the army was harder than he’d expected, the Irish countryside was prettier than he’d imagined. So he sold off his commission, bought some land, found a bride, and settled down to become a farmer.

But like in every other endeavor in life that he tried his hand in, Captain Charles Boycott, now retired from the army, found himself 

After a few years of struggling with the elements, Captain Boycott found his new calling – managing other peoples’ farms for them. 

Ireland in the Late 19th Century

In the 19th century, Ireland was an impoverished land wracked by sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants. The fruits of the industrial revolution and the riches of the British Raj had not benefited the Irish peasantry. This was one reason why the Irish emigrated en masse to the United States at the close of the 19th century.

In Ireland proper, most people survived by working as tenants on other peoples’ lands. One such landowner was Lord John Crichton, the Third Earl of Erne.

Lord Erne owned – hold your breath – 40,386 acres of land in Ireland. That’s a lot of land to own in a small place. 

But such was the plight of Ireland.

In the 19th century, 10,000 people owned all the land in Ireland. Almost all of them were absentee landlords like Lord Erne who enjoyed the good life in London and Paris awash with the ill-gotten wealth of colonialism, while ex-military men like Captain Charles Boycott managed their estates for them. 

Towards the end of the 19th-century political movements began to build up in Ireland against such as repressive state of affairs. The most prominent of these was the demand for three Fs – Free sale, fixity of tenure, and fair rent. Leading the mass mobilization of the Irish peasantry against such regressive land rules were charismatic Irish nationalist politicians such as Charles Parnell and Michael Davitt. 

It was in the middle of this boiling cauldron of Irish nationalistic politics that the unfortunate Captain Charles Boycott found himself when he took up employment as the estate agent of Lord Erne of County Mayo in Ireland. 

The Lough Mask Affair and the Birth of the Word Boycott

In return for a 10% commission, Captain Charles Boycott agreed to act as the rent collector for Lord Erne’s estates. Living in Lough Mask House upon the estate, Captain Boycott soon earned a reputation as a hard taskmaster. His tenants complained that he imposed fines for petty offenses, such as the trespassing of hens upon the estate’s property. 

The atmosphere in Ireland was now tense. Tenants and laborers, fired by socialist and nationalist rhetoric, were itching for a confrontation with landlords.

In August of 1880, inspired by fiery speeches from Charles Parnell and Father John O’Malley, workers at several places in Ireland went on strike.

The next month, Captain Boycott was due to collect rent from his tenants.

Perhaps more out of a general tactlessness towards life and its problems rather than out of any malice or malaise of the heart, Captain Boycott insisted upon the payment of the rent in full by the payment. A better reading of the tense political situation would have led him to adopt a more conciliatory tone and settle for a reduced rent. But all through his life, Captain Boycott had ridden full gallop into misfortune with little tact and lesser foresight, and now was too late in life to change.

The accumulated powder keg of Irish peasants’ resentments caught fire and exploded. The tenants refused to pay rent to Captain Charles Boycott. Even worse, they decided to not have any dealings with him. Shopkeepers refused to sell him any goods, his laundress refused to wash his clothes, his cook refused to cook food for him, his gardener refused to tend to his plants.

The exact use of the word Boycott to describe this situation arose as the result of a conversation between Irish activists James Redpath and Father John O’Malley.

Father John O’Malley wanted to socially ostracize Captain Charles Boycott. But he was concerned about how to communicate this to the peasantry.

Ostracism was too complex a word. Excommunication would have been a certain tongue-twister for the peasantry.

They realized they has no word to describe what they were about to do to poor ol’ Charles Boycott.

Until it hit them.


They were going to Boycott Boycott.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Featured Image Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s