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occupy wall street

The lexical legacy of Occupy Wall Street

Monday, September 17 marks the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protests, which spawned a movement that spread from Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan to public spaces around the US, the UK, and the world. Although the Wall Street encampment was cleared out only two months later, it had already left a mark on the public discourse, and even on the English lexicon.

Zuccotti Park patois

Journalists writing about the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) encampment noted that it developed its own microsociety, with a common kitchen, library, a newspaper, and even its own particular jargon. Its decision-making body was known as the General Assembly. The protesters did not have a permit to use electronic amplification, so they developed what they called the people’s mic: a practice whereby members of the audience repeated the words spoken by the speaker so that they reached the edges of the crowd. The words mic check were used by a speaker to get attention and engage the people’s mic. Twinkling was a finger gesture indicating approval for the speaker. These words made it into the press and spread to other cities with their own Occupy protests, but they didn’t make much of an impact on how non-Occupiers used English.

Occupy My Street

The name Occupy Wall Street turned an imperative verbal phrase into a proper noun that could easily be modified as the movement spread: Occupy Oakland, Occupy Chicago, Occupy London, Occupy Melbourne, etc. The Occupy —— formula was recognizable enough to be reappropriated for rhetorical or humorous effect in phrases like Occupy My Street and Occupy Main Street.

Occupy, of course, is a common, standard English word, but it was used so frequently in reference to the Occupy movement that it contributed to a visible spike in the Corpus of Contemporary American English for the period 2010-2012, and a more than threefold increase in frequency in the Proquest US National Newspapers database in 2011, compared to the previous year. That spike in the frequency was dramatic, but short-lived. After peaking in November 2011, mentions of “occupy” in major newspapers began to decline, although they have not yet returned to pre-OWS levels. Most of this increase in usage, though, refers to the Occupy movement itself, so it reflects only the prominence of the protests in our national conversation, not an actual shift in our vocabulary.

We are the 99 percent

The most enduring impact of Occupy Wall Street on the broader vocabulary of US English was in the rhetorical distinction made between “the 99 percent” and “the one percent”.

This distinction between the 1% and the 99% of income earners is inextricably associated with OWS, but it probably originated a few months earlier in a May 2011 article on income equality by Joseph E. Stiglitz in Vanity Fair. Entitled “Of the 1%, by the 1%, and for the 1%”, the article noted that the upper 1% of Americans control 40% of the nation’s wealth, but contended that “their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live”. In preparations for OWS, organizers inspired by this dichotomy planned a tumblr blog called We Are The 99 Percent which would feature pictures of ordinary people explaining their economic predicaments and stating “I am the 99 percent”. “We are the 99 percent” became a de facto motto of OWS; the web site of the protest proclaimed, “The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99 Percent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the one percent.”

The notion of the 99 percent rapidly became a universal shorthand for “the common people”, whereas the 1 percent suggested modern-day robber-baron plutocrats. They soon engendered derivatives, 99-percenter and 1-percenter, to refer to members of those respective groups, and came to be used outside the context of the Occupy Wall Street movement itself. Scarcely a month after the first protesters occupied Zuccotti Park, an article in the Chicago Tribune praised the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for celebrating “leaders who understand that the people themselves—the 99 percent, you might say—can use nonviolent methods to challenge those whose abuse of power leads to injustice.” Soon, even Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was being described in OWS-esque terminology: “Scrooge is the 1840s equivalent of a 1-percenter, with no interest in sharing his good fortune with the 99-percenters” (Spokesman Review (Spokane, WA), 28 November 2011).

The phrases the 99 percent and the 1 percent have extended their influence well beyond the occupation of Wall Street. In contrast to Occupy buzzwords like “people’s mic” and “twinkling”, which made brief forays into the public discourse and then just as quickly disappeared, the 99 percent and the 1 percent have stayed with us.

As the above chart shows, references to “the 99 percent” and “the 1 percent” in Proquest’s National Newspapers database reached the stratosphere during the period of the Occupy protests. They have since declined from that peak, but have plateaued since spring at well above their pre-OWS levels.

Surprisingly, whereas it was the 99 percent and 99-percenter that initially saw the biggest spikes, by early 2012 the 1 percent terms had taken the lead. In fact, while usage of 99-percenter has dwindled over the summer, 1-percenter has actually gained ground. The US presidential election has been a strong factor in this development, with the Republican Party often caricatured as the party of the 1 percent. But the arrival of the 1 percent as a synonym for ‘the wealthy elite’ has moved well beyond politics, into discussions about topics as varied as zombies and the TV reboot of Dallas:

Zombies are a working-class monster. They aren’t  1 percenters, unlike most vampires (that’s Count Dracula, to you!)
– San Jose Mercury News, 12 Aug 2012

As millions of viewers tune in to Dallas, they won’t merely be curious about how the show has been updated to reflect our era of economic anxiety and widespread resentment of the one percent.
– Texas Monthly, June 2012

The evolution of the 1-percenter

Being a synonym for ‘plutocrat’ is a new role for 1-percenter in English, but the word has existed since the 1960s in a very different sense, referring to an outlaw biker. That meaning of 1-percenter is said to be based on a statement by the American Motorcycle Association that 99 percent of motorcyclists are law-abiding citizens.  This implied, then there were another 1% who flouted laws and social mores, or, as Hunter S. Thomson recorded in Hell’s Angels (1966) “We’re the one percenters, man — the one percent that don’t fit and don’t care.” Perhaps there is a business-savvy biker out there somewhere who is a member of both 1 percents. If he plays Australian Rules Football, he might also “do a 1 percenter” by performing one of various defensive maneuvers which are known by that name. For the moment, however, in US English, the 1 percent and the 99 percent refer, above all, to a new characterization of America’s wealth distribution, which has become enshrined in our national vocabulary. That is the most significant lexical legacy of Occupy Wall Street, and it may be its most important practical legacy, as well.

Photo credit: Marcio Jose Bastos Silva / Shutterstock.com.

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