Meanings: “Occupy”

December 16, 2011

What will be this year’s Word of the Year?  According to Ben Zimmer, chair of the committee of the American Dialect Society that chooses the ADS “word of the year” (or WOTY), the odds on favorite is “occupy,” as in “Occupy Wall Street,” etc.  So this isn’t a new word (unlike “humblebrag” that Zimmer calls a personal favorite) but rather an old word put to new use in 2011. Zimmer notes that the Twitter form (#occupy) helped the word’s rush to prominence.

The etymology of “occupy” is relatively straightforward, but as the entry for “occupy” makes clear, this isn’t the first time “occupy” has been occupied for new purpose:

occupy Look up occupy at

mid-14c., “to take possession of,” also “to take up space or time, employ (someone),” from O.Fr. occuper, from L. occupare “take over, seize, possess, occupy,” from ob “over” + intensive form of capere “to grasp, seize” (see capable). During 16c.-17c. a euphemism for “have sexual intercourse with,” which caused it to fall from polite usage.

“A captaine? Gods light these villaines wil make the word as odious as the word occupy, which was an excellent good worde before it was il sorted.” [Doll Tearsheet in “2 Henry IV”]

Come to think of it, perhaps the leaders stalwarts of the Occupy movement had in mind — that older appropriation of “occupy.”

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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