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verb [transitive]

to move into a public place and stay there for a period of time in order to show that you strongly disagree with a policy, law, etc


noun [uncountable]


noun [countable]

'Nearly two weeks ago, an estimated 3,000 people assembled at Battery Park with the intention of occupying Wall Street. They were an eclectic group … But nearly everyone was angry at what they saw as a culture of out-of-control greed.'

Time 29th September 2001

'National View: Why we should support the occupation of Wall Street … October 2011 will mark a time in U.S. history when the people of the United States, facing great economic peril, rose up to demand economic justice.'

SouthCoast Today 27th October 2011

'Occupy Calgary members staying in the downtown core need to pack up and leave, a city official said yesterday … Occupiers have made it clear they will accommodate events at the plaza but have no intentions of leaving.'

Metro Calgary 27th October 2011

There's been a swathe of protests during the last few weeks which have brought an everyday verb into the spotlight. In the Macmillan Dictionary this is a 'three star', 'red' word, belonging to the set of lexical items which are the most frequent in the core vocabulary of English speakers. When a group of protesters parked themselves in New York's financial district on September 17th 2011, they kicked off a chain of events which has unwittingly breathed a new shade of meaning into the verb occupy.

the verb is now frequently being used with this very specific sense of entering a public space in order to demonstrate

The verb occupy has various senses, but two key ones are the actions of using a room, building, area of land etc, and of taking control of a place by using military force. It therefore seems logical that it was chosen as the main identifier for demonstrations involving activities which lie somewhere at the intersection of these two shades of meaning.

The Occupy protests are an ongoing series of international demonstrations primarily directed against capitalism and economic inequality, sparked in particular by what are now referred to as austerity measures, official action taken by governments in order to reduce spending in the face of economic problems. Kicking off in Wall Street in New York, the Occupy protests have now spread right across the world, including such prominent locations as Frankfurt, Rome, Sydney, Hong Kong, London and various cities in the United Kingdom. As well as marches involving as many as 10,000 protesters, the demonstrations have involved large numbers of people 'camping out', aka occupying, key venues in cities across the world. One notable example was around the entrances to St Paul's Cathedral in central London, where over 200 tents formed a ramshackle campsite. This subsequently caused officials to close the cathedral due to health and safety concerns, the first time its doors have been closed to the public since the Second World War Blitz.

The Occupy movement has gained momentum very rapidly, causing a sudden explosion in the frequency of occurrence of the word occupy in online sources (and also in the number of Google searches for the word). As well as the use of occupy in the description of particular demos (e.g. Occupy London, Occupy Calgary, etc), and the hashtag #Occupy to identify the movement in social media, the verb is now frequently being used with this very specific sense of entering a public space in order to demonstrate. The act of doing so can now correspondingly be referred to as occupation, and those taking part in the protests are sometimes dubbed occupiers.

Background – occupy

The verb occupy dates back to the 14th century, its origins in Latin occupare meaning 'seize'. Interestingly, during the 16th and 17th century it was used as a euphemism for 'have sexual relations with', causing it to fall out of general usage until the late 18th century.

The word occupy has achieved something approaching cult status in the online world in recent weeks, with plenty of evidence of the concept being seized upon to humorous effect – such as Occupy the Bar, a 'movement' with the slogan 'What do we want? An ice cold Guinness! When do we want it? Now!'. Its use has snowballed to such an extent that the American Dialect Society is now considering whether it should join the ranks of previous winners app and tweet as a candidate for its 'Word of the Year'.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

Last week …

Read last week's BuzzWord. Cosmeceutical.

This article was first published on 31st October 2011.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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