Occupy English

The 99 percenters now have new ways to talk about the other 1 percent

Photo: Q. Sakamaki/Redux

On September 17, we want to see 20 000 people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months. Adbusters.org, 13 July 2011

Two months after the above call to action appeared on the blog of Adbusters magazine, thousands of protesters dutifully and gleefully descended on lower Manhattan (but not, alas, Wall Street). They sought a North American Tahrir moment, a revolutionary tipping point on the model of the Egyptian protests that centered on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement created tremendous buzz before packing up due to police pressure and cold temperatures. Whether OWS was a success or failure will be up to the historians to decide. My decidedly more modest goal is to check out its linguistic innovations.


Occupy is an old word, of course, but by late 2011 it had come to have a new meaning: “to take possession of and remain in a place without authorization as a form of protest.” In fact, the protesters soon largely abandoned the “Wall Street” portion of the name, and the protests became more generally known as the capital-O Occupy movement. Indeed, the word became so iconic that the American Dialect Society voted it Word of the Year for 2011.


The protesters called themselves the 99% and 99 percenters (or 99%ers), and the target of their wrath was the 1% or the 1 percenters, the class of people who are the top 1 percent of income earners. (A conservative rejoinder soon made the linguistic rounds: 53 percenter, a person who is part of the 53 percent of households that pay income tax.)


The goals of the 99 percenters were both vague and diverse, but they could be summarized (as in the original Adbusters blog post) as seeking a restoration of democracy from the current system of corporatocracy. This two-syllables-too-many term (the punchier variation is corpocracy) refers to a society in which corporations have substantial economic and political power. A similar coinage is plutonomy, an economy that is driven by or that disproportionately benefits wealthy people, or one where the creation of wealth is the principal goal. The protesters viewed their wealthy bêtes noires as lucrepaths (a blend of lucre and psychopaths).


“We are the 99 percent” became the rallying cry of the occupationistas, but just who are they, anyway? They are the precariat, a mashup of precarious and proletariat that refers to people who have little or no job security. They’re the people doing the ghost work that after a round of layoffs or firings must now be handled by the remaining staff. More often than not this leads to workweek creep, the gradual extension of the workweek caused by performing work-related activities during nonwork hours (a phenomenon also known as job spill), and weisure (a blend, literally and linguistically, of work and leisure).


Other 99 percenters are stuck in stop-loss jobs that they take only to prevent the continued erosion of their savings. Slightly worse is the GOOD job (1995)—a “get out of debt” job. Of course, the recent economic downturn has meant that many among the protesters don’t have jobs at all, particularly men, who were hit harder than women during the recession, thus requiring the term mancession. Don’t, however, confuse a 99 percenter, male or female, with a 99er, a U.S. citizen who has been unemployed for at least 99 weeks and so is no longer eligible to receive unemployment benefits. Such a person is said to be in a state of worklessness, the condition of not only being unemployed but also having few prospects. All he or she can do is post and pray, which involves uploading a résumé to an online job site and hoping to get a response.


The Occupy occupants also bequeathed the protest-friendly terms human microphone (the repetition of a nonamplified speech by successive groups so that people farther away can hear) and twinkling (waving hands with fingers pointed skyward to signal applause or agreement). The language is richer for these new additions to the vocabulary, but it remains to be seen if this movement can create more than just linguistic wealth.


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