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 firstname.lastname@example.org.