[lg policy] What if We Occupied Language?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Dec 22 20:18:29 UTC 2011

What if We Occupied Language?

The Stone

When I flew out from the San Francisco airport last October, we
crossed above the ports that Occupy Oakland helped shut down, and
arrived in Germany to be met by traffic caused by Occupy Berlin
protestors. But the movement has not only transformed public space, it
has transformed the public discourse as well.


It is now nearly impossible to hear the word and not think of the
Occupy movement.

Even as distinguished an expert as the lexicographer and columnist Ben
Zimmer admitted as much this week: “occupy, ” he said, is the odds-on
favorite to be chosen as the American Dialect Society’s Word of the

It has already succeeded in shifting the terms of the debate, taking
phrases like “debt-ceiling” and “budget crisis” out of the limelight
and putting terms like “inequality” and “greed” squarely in the
center. This discursive shift has made it more difficult for
Washington to continue to promote the spurious reasons for the
financial meltdown and the unequal outcomes it has exposed and further

To most, the irony of a progressive social movement using the term
“occupy” to reshape how Americans think about issues of democracy and
equality has been clear. After all, it is generally nations, armies
and police who occupy, usually by force. And in this, the United
States has been a leader. The American government is just now after
nine years ending its overt occupation of Iraq, is still entrenched in
Afghanistan and is maintaining troops on the ground in dozens of
countries worldwide. All this is not to obscure the fact that the
United States as we know it came into being by way of an occupation —
a gradual and devastatingly violent one that all but extinguished
entire Native American populations across thousands of miles of land.

Yet in a very short time, this movement has dramatically changed how
we think about occupation. In early September, “occupy” signaled
on-going military incursions. Now it signifies progressive political
protest. It’s no longer primarily about force of military power;
instead it signifies standing up to injustice, inequality and abuse of
power. It’s no longer about simply occupying a space; it’s about
transforming that space.

In this sense, Occupy Wall Street has occupied language, has made
“occupy” its own. And, importantly, people from diverse ethnicities,
cultures and languages have participated in this linguistic occupation
— it is distinct from the history of forcible occupation in that it is
built to accommodate all, not just the most powerful or violent.

As Geoff Nunberg, the long-time chair of the usage panel for American
Heritage Dictionary, and others have explained, the earliest usage of
occupy in English that was linked to protest can be traced to English
media descriptions of Italian demonstrations in the 1920s, in which
workers “occupied” factories until their demands were met. This is a
far cry from some of its earlier meanings. In fact, The Oxford English
Dictionary tells us that “occupy” once meant “to have sexual
intercourse with.” One could imagine what a phrase like “Occupy Wall
Street” might have meant back then.

In October, Zimmer, who is also the chair of the American Dialect
Society’s New Word Committee, noted on NPR’s “On the Media” that the
meaning of occupy has changed  dramatically since its arrival into the
English language in the 14th century. “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.”

What if we transformed the meaning of occupy yet again? Specifically,
what if we thought of Occupy Language as more than the language of the
Occupy movement, and began to think about it as a movement in and of
itself? What kinds of issues would Occupy Language address? What would
taking language back from its self-appointed “masters” look like?  We
might start by looking at these questions from the perspective of race
and discrimination, and answer with how to foster fairness and
equality in that realm.

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.

For starters, Occupy Language might first look inward. In a recent
interview, Julian Padilla of the People of Color Working Group pushed
the Occupy movement to examine its linguistic choices:

    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… Occupying space is not inherently bad, it’s
all about who and how and why. When  white colonizers occupy land,
they don’t just sleep there over night, they steal and destroy. When
indigenous people occupied Alcatraz Island it was (an act of) protest.

This linguistic change can remind Americans that a majority of the 99
percent has benefited from the occupation of native territories.

Occupy Language might also support the campaign to stop the media from
using the word “illegal” to refer to “undocumented” immigrants. From
the campaign’s perspective, only inanimate objects and actions are
labeled illegal in English; therefore the use of “illegals” to refer
to human beings is dehumanizing. The New York Times style book
currently asks writers to avoid terms like “illegal alien” and
“undocumented,” but says nothing about “illegals.” Yet The Times’
standards editor, Philip B. Corbett, did recently weigh in on this,
saying that the term “illegals” has an “unnecessarily pejorative tone”
and that “it’s wise to steer clear.”

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.

But Occupy Language should concern itself with more than just the
words we use; it should also work towards eliminating language-based
racism and discrimination. In the legal system, CNN recently reported
that the U.S. Justice Department alleges that Arizona’s infamous
Sheriff Joe Arpaio, among other offenses, has discriminated against
“Latino inmates with limited English by punishing them and denying
critical services.” In education, as linguistic anthropologist Ana
Celia Zentella notes, hostility towards those who speak “English with
an accent” (Asians, Latinos, and African Americans) continues to be a
problem. In housing, The National Fair Housing Alliance has long
recognized “accents” as playing a significant role in housing
discrimination. On the job market, language-based discrimination
intersects with issues of race, ethnicity, class and national origin
to make it more difficult for well-qualified applicants with an
“accent” to receive equal opportunities.

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.

As the global Occupy movement has shown, words can move entire nations
of people — even the world — to action. Occupy Language, as a
movement, should speak to the power of language to transform how we
think about the past, how we act in the present, and how we envision
the future.


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