The Word of the Year

by Translation Guy on January 6, 2012

Monopoloy Tower by Lalo Alcaraz.

Last year was the season of the Occupy movement,  starting with the Arab Spring in Tahrir Square through to our winter of discontent on Wall Street. It  is now nearly impossible to hear the word “occupy”  and not think of the protest movement now spread to dozens of countries and hundreds of cities. Ben Zimmer, the Boston Globe’s language columnist and chair of the American Dialect Society, has named occupy as an early favorite for word of the year.

It is “an old word that has been invested with new meanings”, Zimmer said in a recent NPR interview. “It’s almost always been used as a transitive verb,” Zimmer said. “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.” “It has become a call to action itself.”.

H. Samy Alim,  director of  the Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Language (CREAL) at Stanford University, in a NYT op-ed argues that the next Occupation should be of the English language itself, in order to fight widespread language-based discrimination. But where to start? Why not the Occupy Movement itself.  Maybe protestors should be saying  “Decolonize Wall Street” instead of “Occupy Wall Street,” because  Julian Padilla of the People of Color Working Group says because when Whites occupy, they steal and destroy from indigenous people,( like the original owners of Wall Street bought off with beads and hatchets). Or discouraging the use of “illegal” as dehumanizing to  undocumented aliens in the media. (My personal recommendations is to dump “aliens” too, since I find it so alienating, as in little green men.) And what about all the discrimination of people who have accents and are  discriminated against, or unfairly punished for lack of English skills in the justice system. (That’s all you translators working into English, you know, you and your dang furrigner accents!)

“In the face of such widespread language-based discrimination, Occupy Language can be a critical, progressive linguistic movement that exposes how language is used as a means of social, political and economic control. By occupying language, we can expose how educational, political, and social institutions use language to further marginalize oppressed groups; resist colonizing language practices that elevate certain languages over others; resist attempts to define people with terms rooted in negative stereotypes; and begin to reshape the public discourse about our communities, and about the central role of language in racism and discrimination.”

Since TranslationGuy doesn’t do politics, I’ll leave the opinion to readers. Does political correctness correct politics? Is Is Alim’s language occupation prescriptionist nonsense or the tool of  attitudinal sea-change?

Certainly the Occupy movement has had a big impact of the way English-speakers are arguing about political economy. Is the same sort of thing happening in other languages?  

PS. You can make your own nominations for word of the year at


  1. Weird Beard says:

    The work occupy was used a lot in Orlando since the summer. There were a lot of protests in a local downtown park. The word occupy didn’t make sense to me at first, but it slowly caught on with the more I heard about it. I just wonder why they couldn’t just use a word that already existed, like protest, or rally, or sit in.

  2. Occupy may have been a frequently used word in the media this year, but I think it may have seen it’s 15 minutes. I wouldn’t go rewriting the English language because of it. Will it stick around, possibly, if the media chooses to continue to use it, or at least until the next new word comes along.

  3. Calling Tahrir Square an occupation is more like it. That’s a war zone. People actually occupy the streets and take over. Things like that can’t happen in the states, they would be arrested. What we do here is more like a quiet, peaceful occupation.

  4. When I read “Decolonize Wall Street” what popped into my brain was to take the “colon” out of Wall Street. I my mind that is appropriate because I think there is a lot of crap that needs to go!

  5. I’m tired of hearing the work occupy. I think the word of the year should be something that people don’t get tired of hearing…although don’t have any suggestions at this time.

  6. Momo says:

    Way to spell it out translation guy. You really explained the whole occupy and how it’s used. I agree, I think it is a real possiblity for word of the year.

  7. T-Rex says:

    How is there widespread English discrimination? I know that China doesn’t want English words in the news, but doesn’t most of the world want to learn English?

  8. I don’t think political correctness fixes anything. Somebody always has a problem with it no matter what you do or say. Just the nature of the beast.

  9. Joe Duffy says:

    I second the motion to get rid of the word alien when labeling undocumented peoples in a country. I am a US citizen who lives in Canada with my family. My wife is Canadian, so are our kids, but I have never done the paperwork because I go back and forth to the states. I guess I am an alien. Just a wierd word because I don’t feel like one, not to mention an illegal one!

  10. Katherine says:

    I had trouble wrapping my brain around the work occupy at first. I wanted to think of a war zone. When I saw what was happening on Wall Street and other places, it seemed more like a large sit in.

  11. According to Wikipedia, occupy is the official 2011 word of the year. I kind of like “cloud” which refers to the online space for data storage. Of course, who knows how long that term will last with how fast things change in technology.

  12. Joel Lamm says:

    Julian Padilla needs to enter the modern world. I can’t stand people who keep blaming whites for what they did hundreds of years ago. The same type of deals are done and have been done by people of all races and religions around the world, in the past and still today.

  13. Wilber says:

    “Word of the year?” Gotta have an authoritative proclamation of such each year don’t we. My goodness, the psychosociopolitical implications! Take heed, Americans!

    On a related topic, there’s a college in the Midwest that comes out with an annual list of words and phrases to be banned. Maybe it’s tongue-in-cheek in their case, but recently a “poet” in L.A. launched a campaign to ban “awesome,” and apparently he’s serious. It seems there’s no end to would-be language mavens anxious to scratch their pet peeve in public.

    It’s bogus, folks. As a trained linguist I am of course honor bound to take note of every such flurry. What I do is contemplate it for as long as 17 seconds, at which point mild amusement fades into ho-hum and I let it go.

    Alim’s and Padilla’s notions are something else; they have a slightly unsavory Big-Brother-Newspeak-Orwellian ring (see the Appendix to “1984”). But I doubt that either individual, or anyone with a similar agenda, will ever seize coercive police powers over language. Anyway, political correctness is annoying enough as it is.

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