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Boycott, Muller and Other Names that Became Verbs

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English is full of nouns that were originally surnames. The Mackintosh is a rainproof coat, sometimes but not always made of the rubberized cloth patented by Scotsman Charles Macintosh (1766-1843) in 1823. In the UK, many people call their vacuum cleaners Hoovers, whether or not they were made by the multinational company which still bears the name of William H. Hoover (1849-1932), a businessman who started out making leather goods in Ohio. Hoover has also become a verb, describing the action of removing dust from a carpet by sweeping a vacuum cleaner across it. Among other English verbs which memorialize the achievements, personality or notoriety of individuals are:

Boycott (a person, product or company)
Captain Boycott

Capt. Charles C. Boycott (1832-1897), from whom we get a noun as well as the verb, was a land agent in Ireland's County Mayo in 1880. His duties included managing the relationship between Catholic tenant farmers and his employer, a Protestant landowner. Boycott defended the landlord's interests by refusing to consider rent reductions for struggling tenants. His hardheartedness prompted the Irish National Land League, founded two years earlier, to "send him to Coventry." Land League members and their supporters refused to speak or deal with Boycott, and encouraged or intimidated others to behave the same way.

Because he was boycotted, the land agent was unable to buy goods in local shops, receive mail or have his clothes laundered. The campaign was very effective; Boycott felt compelled to leave Ireland before the end of the year. The case received press attention throughout the British Isles, Boycott being caricatured in Vanity Fair (shown here) and other magazines. He was long dead by the time Ireland won its independence in 1921, but his name lives on in everyday English, and has been adopted by several foreign languages, among them Spanish (boicot) and Japanese (boikotti). 

The word (as a noun or verb) appeared in numerous situations in the 20th century, notably the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the sports boycott of apartheid-era South Africa. The bus boycott, which lasted a year, was an important episode in the US civil-rights struggle. It began when Rosa Parks, a black woman, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama because she had refused to give up her bus seat so a white man could sit down. Strictly speaking, her crime was refusing to obey the driver's instructions on where passengers should sit. The boycott ended on December 20, 1956 when a federal court ruled that segregated buses were unconstitutional.

The word has been applied retrospectively to a key event which helped trigger the American War of Independence: the Boston Tea Party. The British parliament had given the East India Company, then in dire financial straits, a monopoly of tea trade in North America. This outraged those living in the American colonies, and led to Americans shunning the company's tea and, in one famous incident, storming ships moored in Boston's harbor and throwing chests of tea into the water. 

Boycott is a somewhat uncommon English family name. The most famous Boycott since the hapless land agent in Ireland is undoubtedly Geoff Boycott (born 1940), a legendary cricketer for the county of Yorkshire (which he represented at a professional level between 1962 and 1986) and England (1964 to 1982). At the end of his international career, he took part in an unofficial tour of South Africa, defying the United Nations ban (the aforementioned "sporting boycott"), which earned him a lot of money and a great deal of opprobrium.

Rebels: The Irish Rising of 1916
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Muller (a sporting opponent)

Gerd Muller
If a team loses a game very badly, if they've been totally outclassed or outplayed, a Briton might say they were mullered. This verb honors Gerhard "Gerd" Müller, a German soccer star of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Müller, who was born on November 3, 1945,  is rated by many as one of the ten best European footballers of all time. Representing West Germany, he scored 68 goals in 62 matches; very few world-class strikers have managed an average of more than one goal per international game. In his 15 years playing club soccer for Bayern Munich, he scored 365 times in 427 league matches and 66 times in 74 games against clubs from other parts of Europe. In 1970, he won the title European Footballer of the Year; that year, he scored 10 goals at the World Cup. In the 1974 World Cup, he scored four times, including the goal which won the final for West Germany. He's shown here holding the trophy.

Müller wasn't just a superb player. He was also an intensely physical opponent who never backed down from a tackle, using as much force as he could without fouling. British football fans with long memories also remember him as the man who scored the winner against England in 1970, knocking England (which had won the 1966 tournament) out of the World Cup at the quarter-final stage.

Some language mavens propose a different origin, saying the verb actually derives from a Middle English meaning of mull: to grind into powder. Others think it's old prison slang for a very severe beating.

Bogart (an object, especially a joint)
Humphrey Bogart

Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957), one of the most famous tough-guy actors in the history of the silver screen, isn't known to have used illegal drugs, yet his surname has given the English language a rather special verb. To bogart usually means, "to selfishly hold on to a marijuana joint, instead of passing it around," and it's derived from the actor's on-screen habit of holding a cigarette in mouth almost constantly, even when delivering monologs. In real life as in his movies, Bogart was a heavy smoker; he died of lung cancer before his 57th birthday.

The verb is sometimes used for other kinds of objects which a person may monopolize, in the manner Bogart himself (playing a character called Dobbs) did with a gold mine in the 1948 John Huston movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. A more common verb with a similar meaning in both American English and British English is hog.

Bowdlerize (a text)
Censored Book

Bowdlerization is an especially vigorous form of censorship, meaning the removal of any material from a book which is thought to be unwholesome or hold potential to corrupt innocent minds. The noun and verb - which first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1836 - come from the surname of Dr. Thomas Bowdler, a physician and social reformer who underwrote the publication in 1807 of The Family Shakspeare, an edition of the Bard of Avon's works designed to be more suitable for children and ladies. (At that time, William Shakespeare's family name was usually spelled without an "e" after the "k"). The full title of one edition was The Family Shakspeare, in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family by Thomas Bowdler. Around a tenth of the original text was expurgated.

Bowdler, who was born in the ancient English city of Bath in 1754 and died in Wales in 1825, wasn't the one who chose which phrases to delete or amend. His sister, Henrietta Maria (1750-1830) did that work. Because it wasn't thought proper for an early 19th-century lady to admit to understanding Shakespeare's saucier passages, her name didn't appear anywhere on the book.

Although bowdlerizing books is now looked down on and sometimes laughed at, a number of commentators have praised the Bowdlers for making Shakespeare more accessible to young readers during a conservative era. Among those who nowadays enjoy the unexpurgated works of the English language's greatest playwright, a good number first encountered Shakespeare in a rewritten, simplified or shortened form, like the stories presented in this wonderful book:

Tales from Shakespeare
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Comments

Oct 31, 2014 7:41am
vicdillinger
Good stuff! A thumb!
Dec 3, 2014 8:13am
SuMoksha
wow, didn't know that :)
Mar 19, 2015 3:38am
eegan41
Very interesting indeed!
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