< Word Watch: Occupy

Transcript

Friday, October 21, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Occupy Wall Street has yet to change the way we distribute wealth in this country, but it's already changed the way we think about the word “occupy.”

MAN:

The Occupy Traffic people have not got there yet, have they?

MAN:

Not yet, no – yeah.

MAN:

The pips [?] is gonna occupy the whole thing. They’re just gonna come in and occupy the whole night!

MAN:

Occupy Golf Course?

MAN:

We should also Occupy Sesame Street?

WOMAN:

And they’re going to occupy – their humanity.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com and former On Language columnist for The New York Times Magazine. He’s been tracking the shifting meaning and usage of “occupy.” Ben, welcome to the show.

BEN ZIMMER:

Thanks, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So you refer to the talismanic power of the word, not in a political sense but a linguistic one.

BEN ZIMMER:

That's right. It is this extremely useful word for the movement because as it spread to other cities, it can very easily just work as a kind of a template. Occupy blank, Occupy the-name-of-your-town-here.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

It's also changed in how it's used.

BEN ZIMMER:

“Occupy” an old word. It’s been in the English language since the fourteenth century. It's almost always been used as a transitive verb. That’s a verb that takes an object, so you occupy a place or a space.

But then it became used as a rallying cry, without an object, just to mean to take part in what are now called the Occupy protests. It’s being used as a modifier — Occupy protest, Occupy movement. So it's this very flexible word now that's filling many grammatical slots in the language.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Have you tracked the way that the word has been played for laughs? After a long day of protesting, sometimes folks talk about how it's time to “occupy my bed.” And then there's this, from earlier this week in Zuccotti Park. Here’s a guy who’s using the human microphone to make a statement to his girlfriend:

[CLIP]:

PEOPLE:

I brought you down here in front of all these people:

MAN:

To give you something you deserve for a long time.

PEOPLE:

To give you something you deserve for a long time.

MAN:

So, Deb.

PEOPLE:

So, Deb.

MAN:

Will you occupy my life?

PEOPLE:

Will you occupy my life?

DEB:

Yes.

PEOPLE:

Yes.

[PEOPLE CHEERING]

BEN ZIMMER:

Oh, that’s cute. I mean and it, it’s a sign of the way that people are making this word occupy their own.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Let's go back to the beginning. You wrote that the earliest evidence in the Oxford English Dictionary for this sense of “occupy,” to gain access and remain in without authority as a form of protest derived from 1920 Italian protests.

BEN ZIMMER:

It's rare that we can pinpoint a new sense of a word so closely, but what we find is that there were these protests happening in Italy, mass protests against factory conditions. So the factory workers occupied the factories, shut them down and, and just stayed there for their protest demands to be met.

And so, it was in the English language coverage of that strike that we get the word “occupy” and “occupation” used specifically to refer to protests.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You've got military occupations in Haiti, you’ve got the Soviet occupation of much of the Eastern Bloc. Didn't the protesters consider that it might be dangerous to use a word that's been aligned with imperialism?

BEN ZIMMER:

It's true. It is charged with many political meanings. But because it is so flexible, it can take on different meanings and it can be used in so many different contexts. Those are all marks of the success of a linguistic pattern because it's so endlessly adaptable.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

I'll say, ‘cause if you scroll down, I mean, way down the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “occupy” and you get to the eighth one, it's a transitive verb that means to have sexual intercourse or relations with. Mm?

BEN ZIMMER:

That’s right. That’s part of the checkered past of the word “occupy.” Back in the seventeenth or eighteenth century you wouldn't want to use that word because it had this naughty meaning to it. That meaning faded away and the old meanings came back, and so it's not seen as this taboo word anymore. But it just goes to show how one single word can encompass so much in its history.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You have a lot of different hats, one of which is being in charge of the American Dialect Society?

BEN ZIMMER:

Well, just in charge of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. It’s a scholarly group, and one of the things that we do is we select a word of the year every year. So, for instance, last year we selected “app,” A-P-P. The year before that was another techie word “tweet.”

And I think that “occupy” is coming on strong as a definite frontrunner, and we'll see by the end of the year if it — if it really shows that staying power, as I think it will.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

What’s the competition?

BEN ZIMMER:

Remember when Charlie Sheen was a big deal and everyone was talking about winning? Back in that brief moment at the beginning of 2011 we might have thought that “winning” would be a winning word.

It could be something related to the economy. One word that has come up quite a bit is “downgrade.” The US debt rating was downgraded by Standard & Poors, and when that happened that idea of downgrading sort of took off as a kind of a metaphorical idea of what's happened to our country.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You guys are so fickle.

[BEN LAUGHS]

Ben, thank you very much.

BEN ZIMMER:

Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com.

[MUSIC]