NPR: 'Occupy' is 2011's Word of the Year

Geoff Nunberg, the linguist contributor on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and the author of the book The Years of Talking Dangerously, has chosen 2011's Word of the Year, and it's 'Occupy' (as if anything else stood a chance).

On the NPR website, Nunberg explained the new importance and meaning of the word:

If the word of the year is supposed to be an item that has actually shaped the perception of important events, I can't see going with anything but occupy. It was a late entry, but since mid-September it has gone viral and global. Just scan the thousands of hashtags and Facebook pages that begin with the word: Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Slovakia. Occupy Saskatoon, Sesame Street, the Constitution. Occupy the hood.

The word itself can take credit for a lot of its success — this isn't an item like "debt ceiling," which just happened to be hitched to a big story. But give props to the magic of metonymy, too. That's the figure of speech that lets us use names like Wall Street, Hollywood or Seventh Avenue to refer to the things that go on there.

He continues:

Now, it's true the protesters weren't really occupying Wall Street in the old sense, taking it over the way workers in the 1930s occupied a factory or students in the '60s occupied the dean's office. This is a new meaning of the verb, for a form of protest adapted to the age of smartphones and Twitter, not to mention REI. Once the new occupy grew capital letters, you could export it to places that had no direct connection to finance, as franchises of the original: Occupy Oakland, like Macy's San Francisco. They could have just been called protests, but it wouldn't have felt as much like a movement.

Nunberg also commented on the importance of OWS's other two very important phrases -- the 1%, and the 99%.

The rise of the 1-percenter talk has left the right uncharacteristically defensive and nonplused. Some Republicans have raised the familiar charge of class warfare. Newt Gingrich called the 99-1 concept un-American and divisive, and he warned against attacking the very people you hope will create jobs. But the polls show that a large majority of Americans are concerned about income inequality, whether or not they're sympathetic to the occupiers themselves.

And talking about "the 1 percent" has its advantages. It seems to put things on an objective basis and strips away the vagueness and the emotional overtones that go with talking about "the rich." It has caught the public fancy, too. Even the Wall Street Journal has gotten into the game with a Web page that lets readers calculate their income percentile from 1 to 100. (What, only 98.7?)

And Republicans themselves have been using the phrase, if not always comfortably. Mitt Romney initially described the Wall Street protests as dangerous class warfare. Then he thought better of it and said he understood how the protesters felt, and that he worried about the 99 percent in America, not the 1 percent.

I was struck by a Thanksgiving op-ed in The Washington Times that said "The so-called '99 percent' have never had it so good." The phrase doesn't make a lot of literal sense — what else would you call them? But it suggests the right's frustration. "So-called" is what people say when they've lost control of the conversation and have to use the other's guy's language, like the liberals who talk about "so-called family values."

So why not make "the 99 percent" itself the word of the year? Well, for one thing, occupy is that rare linguistic phenomenon, a word that bubbles up out of nowhere and actually helps to create the very thing it names. And anyway, "the 99 percent" wouldn't be part of our political discussions if occupy hadn't gotten there first.

For those still blind to Occupy Wall St.'s accomplishments, lost wondering what it could ever achieve, Nunberg's choosing of Occupy as the Word of the Year makes one point clear: The movement has infiltrated our culture, our dialogue, and our minds. In Occupy Wall St. speak, it's called culture jamming. 

Read Nurenberg's full article on Occupy as Word of the Year here

AlterNet / By Kristen Gwynne

Posted at December 7, 2011, 11:07am

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