Saturday, January 07, 2012

H. Samy Alim: What if We Occupied Language?

What if We Occupied Language?
By H. Samy Alim
The Opinionator (The New York Times)

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 Year.

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 produced.

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.
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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.

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