Occupy: The Word of the Year?

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.


Related Care2 Coverage

TIME Person of the Year: Guess Who?

Dear Santa: Please Stop Deportations

Ze, Hir, Hirs; He, She, They: Which Pronoun Are You?


Photo by WeNews


Nancy L.
Nancy L6 years ago

Move on from the occupy thing already. Do something that matters and quit trespassing.

Gloria Morotti
Gloria Morotti6 years ago


Marilyn L.
Marilyn L6 years ago

Some thoughts and a definition: illegal 1. Forbidden by law; 2. Forbidden by official rules. When one has entered without proper passport and papers or overstayed their visa in this or any country they are illegally based. I don't find calling an illegal person ‘illegal’ racist or bigoted, it is the truth. I don't hate any group of people and don't use the word illegal to incite anyone, only to show the truth; and the truth is these folks no matter where they are from are forbidden by law to be in the United States; as they would be any other country, therefore making them illegal aliens. Do I think we should stop talking and start solving the problem in an honest, fair and humane manner, yes; that doesn’t take away the fact that they are illegal.

Yes words can be damaging and hateful and that is a terrible thing and we all should be more aware of what we say or write. What I think is wrong with dialogues today is they are not honest. We try to avoid the truth or dance around it. We refuse to call out those who deliberately try to mislead the public or out and out lie to us.
One other thought, if I may. The past is the past, we must learn from it and do better, but one can’t change what one did two second ago; let alone what others did 100 years before us.

Karen and Ed O.
Karen and Ed O6 years ago

To everyone:
Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, chag channukkah sameach ve-shana tova, Happy Kwanzaa, and a belated Ramadan Kariim! And peace to all creatures.

Bruce Van Tassell

Needs to continue into the fateful 2012, keep blasting corporate power bring forward the huge separation between the rapidly growing rich and the down trodden poor.

Glenn M.
Glenn Meyer6 years ago

Spreadt the protest.

Corporations have over-powered our government which now believes that out-sourcing and off-shoring of U.S. jobs is inevitable and necessary with expectations that the middle class should fall on their swords. It is the underlying cause of the financial collapse and borders on national security with the loss of our middle class tax base. Yet, this nation does nothing, not even demand it be restricted by whatever method. International businesses are doing the UN-AMERICAN activity of destroying U.S. salaries, U.S. businesses that hire in the U.S., and as an end result, destroying the U.S. marketplace while still demanding BUSINESS ENTITLEMENTS and protections for themselves.

Infrastructure spending and tax breaks will not replace enough jobs to keep up with the hemorrhaging loss of U.S. jobs from out-sourcing over seas. Neither party will do anything about it unless we begin grass roots efforts to protest out-sourcing and off-shoring of U.S. jobs. If nothing is done we will deserve what we get and it will get a lot worse before it gets better.

Suzy D.
Suzy D6 years ago

I believe "Occupy" to be an inappropriate term in any positive context, as any survivors from the "occupied territories" of WWII will doubtless attest. As Mark S states, the term which should be used is "Take Back", or possibly "Reclaim" !!

Margaret Paddock
M A Paddock6 years ago

Occupy suits these people who have commandeered (to take arbitrary or forcible possession of) the streets of the cities around the world. There presence in mass and refusal to leave puts them in that category.

As far as illegals is concerned the term fits as they are in countries illegally. The term illegal refers to an illegal immigrant in the Merriam Webster's collegiate Dictionary tenth edition. Alim should check it out.

The proper word does much to put the correct emphasis on the subject. It is sad that supposedly educated people such as Alim try to demean or change the emphasis on people or situations he disagrees with.

Alan A.
Alan A6 years ago

Sandy E. "REMEMBER THE ALAMO!" LOL. The Alamo is an example of the Mexicans attempt to thwart the USA invasion of Mexico. Mexico ultimately failed but the Alamo was a valiant attempt by Mexico to hold their own lands against USA occupation. Sorry, to laugh at your seriousness but the irony is just too funny! Anyway, if they, the Mexican immigrants, are invading to occupy, they are just invading to reclaim what was originally theirs. Oh, the irony.

Stanley Balgobin
Stanley R6 years ago

From my perspective, Occupy=Justice. The global inequality that pervades society is the essence of the occupy uprising. The Occupy protests demand social and economic justice for all. The unsustainable path of planetary destruction is inevitable; it is truly remarkable that world leaders do not have the political will to enforce laws for their own survival. As this season is upon us, perhaps the last in our age, it might be instructive to recall some parting words of the Master. " Forgive them father, for they know not what they do" Blessed Christmas to all readers.