23 December 2012

"Occupy" Etymology and the Occupy Movement

            Those of us interested in how the words we use every day arrived in the lexicon are a unique and, well, strange bunch. Most digging into etymology just reveals old meanings and forms of words long forgotten, but once in a while that digging can inform modern usage in unexpected ways. The history of the word “occupy,” for example, evidences a bit of both the archaic and the unusual.
            Unbeknownst to most people, we are constantly throwing around words that at one time referred to things of a sexual nature. Few realize that saying something is “quaint” would have shocked those of Chaucer’s day since the word originally referred to certain, generally unmentionable, parts of the female anatomy that Andrew Marvell may or may not have been aware of when he explained that “worms shall try / that long preserv’d virginity, / And your quaint honour turn to dust” (lines 27-29). Like the ignorant and unaware first-time homeowners describing their quaint dream homes, the Occupy protesters are probably blissfully unaware of the older, more tawdry meaning of their movement’s moniker.
            The movement, and I’ll generally be referring to the Occupy Wall Street version of the “organization,” originally got its name from the intent to “live in and use (a place) as its tenant or regular inhabitant; to inhabit; to stay or lodge in” (5.b.). In this sense, the movement simply gathers awareness to their cause(s) by gathering at a specific location and drawing attention to it. There’s actually a very specific definition of “occupy” that relates both to being in a place and protesting: “to gain access to and remain in (a building, etc.) or on (a piece of land), without authority, as a form of protest”; most protests, though, have legally arranged to protest with permits issued by cities (6.d.). These two definitions are barely sexual.
Some of the more nuanced implications of the word “occupy” may also talk back to the intentions of the movement: “to hold possession of; to have in one’s possession or power” (5.a.). This modern usage is based on where the word came from originally, the Latin occupare, which meant “to seize by force.” This meaning would imply a somewhat more militant intent on the part of the occupiers. Ultimately, this particular definition is probably what the movement means by their title and is hoping for. They would like “the 99%” to take possession of or have power over “Wall Street,” the symbol of all things corporate and greedy. Of course, we voted in the people who manufactured, sewed, and packed the golden parachutes for the C.E.O.s of tanking banks and corporations, and we could, theoretically at least, vote in people who would change things in the future, which would allow us common dwellers a chance to have power over “Wall Street” again. Unfortunately, only 37.8% of those eligible to vote actually stopped watching re-runs of Family Guy and playing Call of Duty to go and cast a vote in 2010, but these are tangential concerns (McDonald).
            Things start to get interesting when we read a little further down in the list of definitions to an older meaning of the word that is out of use now but has been around for a relatively long time. The Oxford English Dictionary includes an interesting note about the word worth quoting in its entirety because of the statistical data it presents:
Throughout the 17th and most of the 18th cent., there seems to have been a general tendency to avoid this word… Against 194 quots. for 16th c., we have for 17th only 8, outside the Bible of 1611 (where it occurs 10 times), and for the 18th c. only 10, all of its last 33 years. The verb occurs only twice (equivocally) in Shakes., is entirely absent from the Concordances of Milton and Pope, is not used by Gray; all Johnson’s quots., except 2, are from the Bible of 1611. (“Occupy”)
 To break this down, of the 194 quotes gathered by the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary, only eight of them are from the years between the end of the 16th and the end of the 18th centuries, a 200-year span. Even Shakespeare noticed the word’s unusual problem in II Henry IV: “God’s light these villains will make the word as odious as the word occupy, which was an excellent good word before it was ill sorted” (II.iv.142). The presumed reason for this shunning is a very lewd sense the word had acquired: “to have sexual intercourse or relations with” (8.a.). As seen before, the Bible, of all things, didn’t seem to become abashed at the word, and neither did Ranulf Higden, a Benedictine monk and historian. In the Polychronicon, Higden explains that “Men of Lacedemonia… wery thro the compleyntes of theire wifes beenge at home, made a decre… that thei scholde occupye mony men” (III.47). Well, he was certainly right about the rampant homosexuality and pedophilia of the Greeks, an oft-forgotten fact when people extol that noble civilization that brought democracy (and possibly baklava) into the world, and it’s interesting to see that he chose to use the word “occupy” as his verb.
            What strikes me about this, well, oversight on the part of those naming a movement is how it fits in so nicely with all the criticisms about the hypocrisy of those participating. Listening to NPR and reading a bit about it here and there in the news, it seems like critics repeatedly point out that the protesters walk around carrying smart phones and iPads, wear designer jeans, use McDonald’s bathrooms, and drink Starbucks coffee. Some of them even work full-time for huge corporations. They are, to put it poignantly, in bed with the enemy. They lambast corporate greed, but they still buy the newest (read: unnecessarily overpriced) cell phones and tablets. They say franchises destroy local competitors, but they have no problem utilizing Burger King’s restrooms. And something even more interesting is also happening: these institutions don’t kick them out or refuse them service.
            This phenomenon can be explained through two major problems with the whole Occupy situation. First, a lot of blame gets misattributed. People are generally upset about and can agree that C.E.O.s of failing companies should not get paid hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars as a “retirement package” for running a company into the ground. People can probably also agree that the majority of employees in any “big business” are working stiffs that almost certainly fall into “the 99%.” That’s the fundamental irony of the Occupy movement. They’re protesting the very entities that fulfill the goals for which they are protesting. They want jobs, and “big business” employs people. They want cheap gas, and, somewhat counter-intuitively, the worse the economy does, especially overseas, the cheaper gas will be (at least until we run out of it forever in twenty years).
Secondly, things are much more complicated than most people can imagine. In ancient Greece, a terrible time for a homophobes but an excellent time for simplicity, when something was manufactured, you could speak to the person who was in charge of almost the entire process. At the very least, they were responsible for the most recent part of the manufacturing process, i.e., they created the object you were buying. Today when you go to the Apple store, Radio Shack, or even when you purchase a snack at Starbucks, you do not interact with anyone who had any involvement in the manufacturing of the product you are buying. It’s entirely possible that in your day-to-day life, you don’t interact with anyone who has any knowledge of the actual manufacturing of any of the products they sell. There is very little communication between the creators of things and the users of things, and any time there is a delay in or lack of communication, things generally degenerate quickly, e.g., it’s possible that the American Revolution never would have taken place if it hadn’t taken three months for communications to get from North America to England.
            Of course, complexity doesn’t just exist in manufacturing processes. Basically everything about everything is infinitely more complicated than anyone can actually grasp. We like to oversimplify things so we can understand them. The sun goes up and the sun goes down? That’s not actually true because it’s much more complicated than that. Greedy corporations tanked the economy? That’s not actually true because it’s much more complicated than that. Placing blame on corporations for the economic problems of an entire nation is a convenient but highly flawed way to anti-intellectualize and ignore the almost infinitely complex reality of a situation that involves coroporations, politics, consumer behavior, accepted societal norms, etc.
Keeping this complexity in mind, anyone who claims to have something “all figured out” or has a “simple solution” to any problem not related to your coffee mug being empty is almost certainly the kind of person you should try to avoid. If you can occupy any place, a country, an office, a new employee, a prostitute, and/or yourself in a number of ways, anything more complicated than six (arguably only five) letters should probably be given some serious thought and consideration rather than hasty generalization and oversimplification. Oh, and if you see some Occupiers, tell them to get an occupation and go occupy themselves.

                                                        Works Cited

Top of Form
Higden, Ranulf. Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden Monachi Cestrensis: Together with the English Translations of John Trevisa and of an Unknown Writer of the Fifteenth Century. London: Longman, 1865. Print.
Bottom of Form
Marvell, Andrew. “To His Coy Mistress.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Volume B: Sixteenth Century & Early Seventeenth Century. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005. 1703. Print.
McDonald, Michael. “2010 General Election Turnout Rates.” United States Elections Project. George Mason University, 28 January 2011. Web. 1 December 2011. <http://elections.gmu.edu/Turnout_2010G.html>.
"Occupy, v." OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2011. Web. 1 December 2011 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/130189?redirectedFrom=occupy>.
Shakespeare, William. The Second Part of Henry the Fourth. The Norton Shakespeare Based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997. 1304-1379. Print.

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