In a year when the protester has been dubbed the person of the year, it seems only fitting that the word “occupy” is a favorite to be the American Dialect Society‘s word of the year. Writing in the New York Times, H. Samy Alim, the director for the Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Language (CREAL) at Stanford University, notes a certain irony to “occupy” becoming the name of a progressive social movement as “it is generally nations, armies and police who occupy, usually by force.” But in 2011, just as the occupy movement has asserted its presence in public spaces in cities throughout the US and the world, so has it also “appropriated” a word and changed and expanded its meaning.
“Occupy” comes from the Latin word occupare, “to take over, possess, occupy.” Occupare itself comes two Latin words, ob, meaning “against” or “over,” and capere, “to seize, capture.” The word first entered the English language in the mid 14th century and indeed meant “to take possession of.” Its meanings, like those of many words, have shifted over time (in the 16th and 17th centuries, for instance, “occupy” was a euphemism for “to have sexual intercourse”). While, for most of its history, “occupy” has been a transitive verb (i.e., it takes a direct object: “The Allied Powers occupied Japan after World War II”), since Occupy Wall Street set up its first tent in Zucotti Park, “occupy” has become a modifier: We now speak of the “Occupy movement” and of an “Occupy protest” occurring.
Alim calls for us to take things a step further and “Occupy Language.” We need to think about how the words we use can oppress and discriminate, and about how we can change our language to foster real change in the world:
Occupy Language might draw inspiration from both the way that the Occupy movement has reshaped definitions of “occupy,” which teaches us that we give words meaning and that discourses are not immutable, and from the way indigenous movements have contested its use, which teaches us to be ever-mindful about how language both empowers and oppresses, unifies and isolates.
Again and again, and in ways that we are mostly unaware of, we use language as a means of control, socially, politically, economically. One example is the language the media uses to describe undocumented immigrants. Occupy Language could, says Alim, support the campaign to call for the media to cease from using the dehumanizing terms “illegal” and “illegals,” which, in English, are only applied to inanimate objects and things. Writes Alim:
Pejorative, discriminatory language can have real life consequences. In this case, activists worry about the coincidence of the rise in the use of the term “illegals” and the spike in hate crimes against all Latinos. As difficult as it might be to prove causation here, the National Institute for Latino Policy reports that the F.B.I.’s annual Hate Crime Statistics show that Latinos comprised two thirds of the victims of ethnically motivated hate crimes in 2010. When someone is repeatedly described as something, language has quietly paved the way for violent action.
Alim also quotes a recent interview in which Julian Padilla of the People of Color Working Group highlights the pejorative undertones of the word “occupy”:
To occupy means to hold space, and I think a group of anti-capitalists holding space on Wall Street is powerful, but I do wish the NYC movement would change its name to “‘decolonise Wall Street”’ to take into account history, indigenous critiques, people of colour and imperialism…
Padilla says that, when European colonizers “occupied” land, they then went on to “steal and destroy” and contrasts the occupation of Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay as a protest. Indeed, “a majority of the 99 percent has benefited from the occupation of native territories,” as Alim writes.
The Occupy movement attests to the power of words to “move entire nations of people — even the world — to action.” With a new year on the horizon, one way we can carry on the work of the movement is not only to assert our presence in actual places and spaces, but to uncover how our institutions use language to discriminate, oppress and marginalize and to make critical changes about how we use words and, thereby, to go about making real change in the world.
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