The concept of ostracizing, or ostracism, is yet another victim of the ossifying tendencies of overzealous linguists, who have ostentatiously traced its ostensible roots to the Greek ostrakismos, derived from ostraka, or potsherds.
Ostrakismos was a procedure used in the Athenian democracy, by which any citizen of the city-state could be expelled for a period of ten years, for reasons as varied as thievery, bestiality, excessive use of the word coccyx, poor penmanship, and halitosis. The potsherds referenced in the word were used as a kind of secret ballot, on which all of the ancient Athenians could record a vote of “yay” or “nay” regarding the expulsion, though some who did not wish their opinions to remain secret had the option of throwing their potsherd directly at the person facing expulsion. This was known as a “strong yay.”

However, our current usage of the word ostracize to denote the exclusion of a person from society has a much more recent past, easily traceable to A. J. Mounteney Jephson (1859-1908) British explorer, adventurer, and plundering enthusiast. In his written accounts of his travels to Africa Jepshon describes the fascinating customs and habits of several Sahel tribes. These papers have a tremendous anthropological significance, particularly since almost all of the tribes described were wiped out shortly after the expedition’s departure, due to the sleeping sickness epidemic it had introduced into their territories.

According to Jephson’s account, one custom he had observed among several tribes involved an individual who had brought shame to his family, who was ceremoniously placed upon an ostrich and cast out into the desert. In cases where a whole family brought shame to the village, a special cart was constructed and attached to the ostrich, thus allowing the whole family to be, as Jephson put it, ostrich-ized. This custom appealed to Jephson greatly, and he wrote about it at length, even going so far as to suggest that it would be “an appropriate and befitting solution to the pressing issue of what is to be done with Gilbert and Sullivan, and others of their ilk.” When he returned to Europe he even attempted to start an ostrich-cart taxi service, but his business model soon collapsed with the advent of the horseless carriage.

Jephson’s expedition diary sold well and made the terms ostrichized and to ostrichize quite popular; in transitioning from British to American English the term was simplified into ostracize, which is how we recognize the word today.

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