Boycott and the Royal Academy of Spanish

The Royal Academy of Spanish (Real Academia Española) has been in existence since 1714, with its role being the standardisation and codification of Spanish across the world, from Madrid to Manila and taking in the vast majority of the South American continent. There are many who would see this body as excessively conservative, especially in the area of approving the use of loan words, in particular from English. It does seem like the Academy takes perverse pleasure in blocking the entrance of words (take “blog” for example) into their dictionary. It would also seem as if they are being Cnut-like in attempting to stem this flow of words from English in today’s world of the internet and 4G and globalisation and what have you. (You could say they are acting like Cnuts!)

There is something typically Spanish (top-down, undemocratic, paternalistic, authoritarian) in the Academy’s efforts to keep their language pure and as free of foreign influence as possible. And when it becomes inevitable that a word receive the rubber stamp and be squeezed into the dictionary it seems as if it is done so grudgingly. Very often the word’s spelling is changed, probably to disguise its foreignness, make it seem more Spanish (or possibly out of a malicious desire to tinker with the offending word). Take “boycott” for example.

Charles Stewart Parnell. Library of Congress d...

Charles Stewart Parnell. Library of Congress description: “Hon. Chas. Parnell of Dublin, Ireland” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How the word entered the English language is well documented. On September 19, 1880, Charles Stewart Parnell speaking in the Square in Ennis (a five minutes’ walk from my childhood home, by the way) made, in the context of the Land League‘s campaign for land reform in Ireland, his famous speech calling for hostile landlords to be shunned.

When a man takes a farm from which another had been evicted you must shun him on the roadside when you meet him, you must shun him in the streets of the town, you must shun him in the shop, you must shun him in the fairgreen and in the marketplace and even in the place of worship, by leaving him alone, by putting him in a moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of his country as if he were the leper of old, you must show your detestation of the crime he has committed.

Parnell’s words were first put into action a few weeks later in Co. Mayo against the Earle of Erne’s English land agent, Captain Charles Boycott. So ostracized by his tenants and the local community was Captain Boycott that he could get nobody to work his fields. The 50 politically motivated Orange Order members from Cavan and Monaghan that volunteered to help him needed police escorting to and from Castlebar each day and the estate was given army and police protection. One thousand policemen and soldiers were involved in the entire operation. The Land League gained a great victory with Parnell claiming at the time that it cost over one shilling for every turnip dug. Parliament in Westminster clearly couldn’t devote the same the same resources to every land dispute in a country boiling over with a conflict known as the “Land War” and so the likes of Captain Boycott were forced to negotiate and conciliate instead of evict. Thus, the tactic of boycotting was born.

Caricature of Charles Cunningham Boycott (1832...

Caricature of Charles Cunningham Boycott (1832-1897). Caption read “Boycott”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Boycott (spelt “boicot”) first appeared in the Academy’s dictionary in 1927 (almost 50 years after the word first began to be used in English and presumably many years after Spaniards and South Americans spoke of el boicoteo and boicoteando [the boycott and boycotting]). While a 50 year gap between a word’s going global and its appearance in a dictionary may seem excessive, defenders of the Academy would claim that its purpose is not the registering of ephemeral usages in Spanish, but to protect a united Castilian language and prevent national variants from becoming incomprehensible to other Spanish speakers. Let’s hope “crowdfunding” and other new terms will make it into their dictionary before 2050!

Real Academia Española building, Madrid, Spain.

Real Academia Española building, Madrid, Spain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a final aside, I currently live at about the same distance from a roundabout named in honour of the Royal Academy of Spanish as I used to live from the Square in Ennis, so in a way the word’s journey from boycott to boicot is mirrored by my own.

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About ucronin

Born in the country town of Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland in 1975, I now live in Madrid with my partner and two young daughters and work in a research institute. While I was always a hungry reader and harboured vague notions of being a writer, as a young man writing was the furthest thing from my mind; after leaving school, I did a B.Sc. in Biotechnology in Galway's NUI, an M.Sc. in Plant Science in University College Cork and a Ph.D. in Microbiology in the University of Limerick, the plan being to dedicate my professional career to scientific research. While having written extensively within my technical scientific field, I had never contemplated becoming a writer of fiction until a road-to-Damascus moment on the N69 between Listowel and Tarbert, Co. Kerry in the summer of 2011. Since then, most of my spare time has been occupied with writing. In whatever other free moments I have, I like to listen to music, play the guitar and garden (which here in Madrid means a lot of watering of plants and spraying for red spider mite). My ambition is to become as good a writer as I possibly can, eventually freeing myself from the cold clutches of science and earning a living through my scribblings. The type of writing that excites me is honest, intelligent, well-constructed and richly descriptive.
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One Response to Boycott and the Royal Academy of Spanish

  1. Very interesting! I love to learn about word origins.

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