Boycotts and mullets

It could very well be that nobody else would ever think to write about a topic like this, and I’m fine with that. But I’m having fun with this, and if coming to this space is fun for you, too, then come on along. This post will be over soon enough, one way or the other.

My third grader brought home a worksheet for social studies homework tonight. Since I once was a social studies teacher, and I’ve put together more of these worksheets than I could tell you about here, I took an interest in this sheet. And sure enough, I did find something amusing to write about.

The sheet is a little crossword puzzle, where there’s a list of 10 words given, and for each of the clues, you have to pick the right word from the list and fill it in on the puzzle. My daughter tends to transpose letters sometimes, so filling the words in is not as straightforward as it could be. But it’s my job to catch that sort of thing, and I’m happy to do it.

Clue number 5 Down on tonight’s Revolutionary War-themed puzzle read as follows: “The colonists decided to _______ British tea when a tax was placed on it.” Anyone who has ever studied American history knows that the word to fill in here is “boycott,” but it’s not quite as simple as that.

The events that the puzzle talks about took place in the 1760s, well before the battles at Lexington and Concord and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And in the 1760s, nobody on earth–in the British colonies or otherwise–had any idea about what a “boycott” was. The word itself comes from the name of Captain Charles Boycott, who ran afoul of Irish tenant farmers during a land war in 1880. Click here if you want to know the full story about it.

My point is that a hundred years earlier, in 1780, the American Revolution was still going on, and the deliberate, coordinated actions of the American colonists to not buy any tea were a thing of the past. Whatever the colonists were doing at the time, they weren’t calling it a “boycott” because the meaning of the term was still a hundred years and more off in the future.

A few years ago, the Disney Channel was a regular item on the TV in our house. And no show was more popular than Hannah Montana. I remember very clearly one episode where Hannah’s father, played by Billy Ray Cyrus, sang a song about the 80s called “I want my mullet back.” I remember the hair he had back then, as well as a lot of professional athletes, rock stars, and even guys I went to high school and college with. Longish in the back, and shorter in the front.

But here’s the problem: we all know this as a “mullet” today, but the term for it hadn’t been coined yet. The first actual reference to a “mullet” as a hairstyle dates back to 1992, when the Beastie Boys published an article about it in Grand Royal magazine. So whatever Billy Ray Cyrus and various members of  Night Ranger and thousands of dudes had back in the 80s, they didn’t call it a mullet quite yet.

I wrote a small note to the teacher on the back of my daughter’s worksheet. In two short sentences, I sketched out the origin of the word “boycott” and its proximity (or lack thereof) to what the American colonists were doing in the 1760s. I left out the whole mullet thing, though. She already has to put up with enough nonsense as it is.

So could the colonists’ actions be retrofitted with the term “boycott,” in the same way that Billy Ray Cyrus’ hair from the 80s can be retrofitted with the term “mullet”? I suppose so, since no better word for them seems to exist. But let’s at least understand that the colonists didn’t consider themselves to be “boycotting” anything, and they would have looked at you funny if you tried to suggest they were doing this.

And now it’s time to go back to the world of important things. Thanks for reading, as always.

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