Nothing to lose but your subcategorization

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In yet another of his fine Chronicle of Higher Education blog posts, this one on the ADS Word of the Year balloting, Geoff Pullum dismisses the choice of occupy:

Overall winner as Word of the Year, with twice as many votes as its nearest rival, was occupy. Rather disappointing, I thought: the Mitt Romney of the field of candidates. Just an ordinary and rather moderate verb, not a neologism. But its profile rose so much during the tent-city protests of 2011 that it seemed a true representative of the zeitgeist. It was unstoppable. New Words Committee Chair Ben Zimmer had predicted its win six weeks ago, and he was right.

I thought occupy had more going for it when I made it my WOTY choice in a Fresh Air piece a few weeks ago, though I didn't mention one feature that ought to recommend it to a syntactician, even an English one: its serendipitously symbolic syntactic versatility. In a brief time it went from transitive verb to intransitive verb to adjective ("the occupy movement") to noun*, a demonstration that in America, words don't have to live out their lives as the part of speech they were born as.

*As in Occupy Oakland, which if you think about it is most plausibly analyzed as a noun-noun compound like Macy's San Francisco.


  1. Michael Watts said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 1:36 am

    It makes sense to me to analyze Occupy Oakland as a noun-noun compound, but given that, why would "the occupy movement" imply an adjectival form? Surely I can describe "the abortion movement" without reanalyzing "abortion" as an adjective?

  2. Nick Lamb said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 4:16 am

    Hmm, yesterday I learned a rule of thumb that seemed to work well, adjectives obey the longcat rule _adjective_ noun is _adjective_. "Excellent tuna is excellent", "Red car is red" and so on. Nouns which can er, occupy, the same place in a sentence do not obey that rule, so

    * Kitchen knife is kitchen
    * Dog food is dog
    * Telephone kiosk is telephone

    On that basis I think I agree with Michael Watts, "Occupy movement is occupy" doesn't work. But maybe our resident linguists can show that the rule of thumb is full of holes.

  3. Ben Zimmer said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 5:34 am

    If you look hard enough, you can find some uses of occupy that fit the adjectival bill:

    Great tactic. That is so Occupy. (link)

    The dude even said donating sperm to the 99 percent who can't afford name-brand jizz was a totally Occupy thing to do. (link)

    Guy has a tattooed homage to a Mexican gang banger named Israel on his body, thus proving Jewish involvement – How 'Occupy' is that? (link)

    There are some heavily watermarked images—not very “occupy,” in our opinion, but whatever—on this site. (link)

    But these are few and far between. I agree that when occupy premodifies movement, protest, etc., it's best understood as an attributive noun, not an adjective.

  4. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 6:34 am

    @ Nick Lamb –

    That rule seems to be suggesting that all adjectives are both attributive and predicative. What about, say

    *Asleep man is asleep
    *Erstwhile companion is erstwhile


  5. James Martin said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 6:34 am

    Do Ben's examples really show that "Occupy" is particularly an adjective? Mightn't one just call it a "name" in this context? After all, one can find endless examples like "That is so Simpsons", "How Pink Floyd is that?", "a very Barack Obama sort of speech", etc etc.

    GN: Those are all adjectival uses of proper names. Cf, e.g., "She's more Bette Davis than Bette Davis," etc. Again: in America, etymology isn't destiny.

    Geoff also mentioned that "occupy" (or "Occupy"?) has become used as an intransitive verb; can someone give some examples?

    GN: Cf a Facebook page for "Occupy together", a heading "Students Occupy for Health Justice," and an ACLU injunction to "Occupy for Human Rights."

  6. tpr said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 7:25 am

    @Nick Lamb,
    Not all adjectives can appear both attributively (before a noun) and predicatively (after a predicate) so your test isn't foolproof. For example, the adjective main can appear attributively, but not predicatively:

    The main street…

    *The street is main.

    @Ben Zimmer,
    Ruling it out as a gradable adjective doesn't necessarily rule it in as a noun, but the case for it being a noun is reinforced in my judgement, by the observation that the formative -like can readily be attached to occupy in closely analogous contexts (e.g., a similar wave of protests could be described as "an occupy-like movement"). Indeed, a Google search reveals that I'm not alone in this judgement:

    Jewish 99 percent: An Occupy Wall Street-like movement

    Eddie Carvery decided to protest the move, setting up his own Occupy-like movement

    Unless I'm mistaken, the -like suffix appears to attach exclusively to nouns (including deadjectival nouns).

  7. Kylopod said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 7:56 am

    It keeps changing which part of speech it is? Then it really is the Mitt Romney of WOTYs!

  8. Kevin said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 8:50 am

    The Occupiers tend to see the "Occupy" in "Occupy XX" as a verb in the imperative mood.

    Compare other organizations (which are admittedly much more formal than the "Occupy All The Things" movement):

    Feed Nova Scotia
    Save the Children
    Restore America

    Why, when we capitalize "Occupy" and put it in a phrase, can't it still be a verb?

    (Having said that, there are pretty clear instances of non-verb usage as well, eg. "the occupy" movement," "the occupy protesters". When talking about the movement, I've noticed people informally using just "occupy", which would clear be a noun in that context.)

  9. Mark Mandel said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    Noun indeed, and specifically a noun referring to the Occupy [___] movement.

  10. GeorgeW said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 9:37 am

    Like most (all?) adjectives, 'occupy' cannot be made into a comparative: *occupier, *occupiest. *more occupy, *most occupy.

    *New York's movement was more occupy than Chicago. It was the most occupy in the world.

  11. Nick Lamb said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 9:37 am

    Pflaumbaum, tbr: Thanks for the counter-examples. I particularly enjoyed "Erstwhile companion is erstwhile".

  12. Mark Mandel said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 12:11 pm

    @GeorgeW wrote
    "Like most (all?) adjectives, 'occupy' cannot be made into a comparative: *occupier, *occupiest. *more occupy, *most occupy."

    You DID mean "nouns" or "verbs", didn't you?

  13. Paul Kay said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

    There's evidence that occupy has become not only a noun, but two nouns: one denoting an occupation and the other denoting an occupant.
    Examples of the latter (courtesy Google):

    we had several egyptians there with us in and from their sources back home asked several occupies to show support in a march. It's only one march, but it's all the same fight.

    … across the United States, with an attempt at closing accounts at a Lower Manhattan Citibank earlier this month resulting in the arrest of several occupies. …

    Examples of the former:

    In December 2011 we visited Several Occupies …

    Zach de la Rocha has attended several occupies!

    In English, if you can pluralize it with s (or quantify it with several), it's a noun.

  14. John Baker said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

    Pflaumbaum, tbr: "Erstwhile companion is erstwhile" and "asleep man is asleep," and even "main street is main," seem to me to make sense in a way that "kitchen knife is kitchen" and "dog food is dog" do not. I see that Wikipedia's article on "adjective" seems to support this test too: "Unlike adjectives, nouns acting as modifiers (called attributive nouns or noun adjuncts) are not predicative; a beautiful park is beautiful, but a car park is not "car"." I'm willing to be convinced that the test doesn't work, but these examples haven't done it for me.

    GN: There's an extensive literature on these, which include examples like "legal secretary," "electrical engineer," etc. If memory serves, those eg's are from Judith Levi's classic 1978 The Syntax and Semantics of Complex Nominals, though I don't have it to hand. Huddleston and Pullum's Cambridge Grammar of English gives a long list of attributive-only adjectives, including marine, principal, sole, drunken, future, putative, umpteenth, mock, self-styled, utter, and so on.

    As to the parts of speech, I agree with Kevin: Some of these examples use "occupy" as a noun, but I think it should be analyzed as a verb in "Occupy Oakland."

  15. GeorgeW said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

    @Mark Mandel: I should have said 'unlike' instead of "like." Sorry for the confusion. I was trying to give an attribute that adjectives have that would not apply to 'occupy' which seems to me to be a noun.

  16. John Baker said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

    GN: Thanks for your response. While some of these examples are a bit marginal (I'm not too bothered by "The orator is self-styled"), some of them seem very convincing indeed. The test falls down particularly with regard to words like "marine," because "Marine biology is marine" doesn't work and might lead one to believe that "marine" is being used as a noun, when in fact it serves as an adjective in the phrase "marine biology."

  17. Pflaumbaum said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 1:59 pm

    @ John Baker

    Everyone agrees that marine, asleep etc. are adjectives, not nouns. That's exactly the point: they show that this test isn't a great way of telling what's an adjective, because although clearly adjectives, they nevertheless fail the test.

    A better test, suggested by CGEL (p537), is whether they can be modified by too or very, or by adverbs, or take the comparative marker more.

    If you accept that test, the following page also points out another problem with the Red car is red test: as well as some adjectives failing it, some nouns pass it:

    A cotton sheet / The sheet is cotton

    They look like adjectives, but by the criteria of the other test they're nouns, because they're modified by adjectives, not adverbs.

    A pure cotton sheet / The sheet is pure cotton
    *A very cotton sheet / *The sheet is very cotton

  18. Jack H said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

    *The sheet is very cotton seems acceptable to me.

    My new t-shirt is cotton, but not very cotton – only 60% is something I might say. Stress on very.

  19. Dakota said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

    The viral "Occupy the Tundra" can only be the imperative form of the verb. |link|
    "When I saw that it was growing and there was Occupying Portland and Occupying New Hampshire, I thought, for goodness' sake, what can I occupy? How can I get on this?"

  20. Svafa said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

    I've always thought of the "occupy" in "Occupy _________" to be an imperative verb. "Occupy" is definitely being used as a noun also, but in that particular case I never thought of it as being a noun; it's always come across as a command to do something.

    On a side note: "asleep", "self-styled", and even "erstwhile" all work as attributive and predicative for me. "Erstwhile" does stretch it a little, but I didn't balk when I read "erstwhile companion is erstwhile" the way I did with "marine biology is marine". Longcat may be to blame for this though, and a few years ago I may not have been so accepting of "the asleep man is asleep" or "the self-styled politician is self-styled". I mention this simply because those three specific examples may be, well, erstwhile.

  21. Mar Rojo said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 5:45 pm

    GN, are you suggesting that elsewhere words do have to live out their lives as the part of speech they were born as?

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

    As with "Feed Nova Scotia" etc., it seems that an imperative sentence/phrase has been transformed into a proper name. Is there a standard account of proper names like this? "Die Dracula Die!" is best analyzed as an imperative sentence/phrase, except for when becomes the name of an "alternative/gothic/indie" band with a myspace presence. Then it becomes . . . what? A noun phrase? A single-unit noun that happens to be spelled as multiple words? You can certainly do things with it as if it were a noun or NP. "Call Save the Children and see if the donation we sent them has arrived yet" doesn't treat "save" as a verb and would be ungrammatical if it did. So it seems to me that step one here was the original imperative "Occupy Wall Street" becoming a proper name as a three-word unit, but then at step two becoming snowclonified such that "occupy" started floating loose in a way that the "save" from Save the Children doesn't. Although I'm not immediately thinking of one, it seems like there must be other examples where even without snowclonification proper names built from verb phrases get clipped so that the abbreviated version is what was (in the underlying phrase) the verb, but is used as a proper name and thus in a noun-like way.

  23. The Ridger said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 6:37 pm

    @Mar Rojo: in many languages they do. In highly inflected languages such as Russian, for instance, you simply must have a verbal suffix and ending on something for it to be a verb, and an adjectival for it to be an adjective. Only a tiny handful of nouns have no nominal suffix, but they have to be nouns as they have no other suffix or ending. Those endings can attach to just about anything, though any other endings have to be eliminated, so cross-categorization by derivational morphology is quite common (for instance пиар (pee-ar, from English PR) can be made into several nouns (with -shchik, a pr person, for instance, or with -nik, a PR day or event), a verb (with -it', to conduct a pr campaign), an adjective (with -nyj, just PR, or -enkij, which is used for things like fund-raising calendars). In no case can piar by itself function as anything but a noun. In English, of course, that's not true. Cross-categorization can often be accomplished just by using the word, no derivational morphology required.

  24. Mar Rojo said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 6:47 pm

    Thanks for that detailed example, but I was wondering whether GN was suggesting that outside of America, i.e. in other parts of the English-speaking world, words do have to live out their lives as the part of speech they were born as?

    GN wrote: "a demonstration that in America, words don't have to live out their lives as the part of speech they were born as."

    GN: It's a free country.

  25. Mark F. said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 7:19 pm

    It makes sense that a word undergoing such a period of creative application would have lots of hard-to-classify usages.

    With regard to one of them, is it necessarily the case that "occupy" in "the occupy movement" isn't a sentence, rather than a noun or adjective? I have found some hits for "the be happy movement" and "grow movement" on the web. And "the keep America beautiful movement" is at least plausible to me.

    Perhaps in these cases the correct interpretation is that the sentence is being treated as a kind of noun?

  26. Peter said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 8:37 pm

    "This shirt is purely cotton, no synthetics involved," doesn't sound awful to me.

  27. Greg Bowen said,

    January 10, 2012 @ 9:00 pm

    "Legal secretary is legal" works as long as she's 18 or over.

  28. Dan T. said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 1:55 pm

    @Ben Zimmer: "That is so Occupy" seems to be the same construction used in the TV show title "That's So Raven", which seems to be able to take any proper noun, so it's an indication that "Occupy" (capitalized) is the proper name of the movement, and is acting as a noun in that context, but taking on adjective-like attributes when used in such particular phrases.

    "Occupy Wall Street" seems to have been intended as an imperative transitive verb phrase as originally used, and perhaps some of the other "Occupy [something]" names also had such connotations in mind, though the sense seems to be gradually shifting to where "Occupy" is simply the noun naming the movement, with the various places appended to it as indicators of particular chapters, affiliates, or offshoots of the movement.

  29. Victoria Simmons said,

    January 11, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

    Re: "a demonstration that in America, words don't have to live out their lives as the part of speech they were born as."

    Shakespeare was very fond of playfully switching around parts of speech, e.g., in "Measure for Measure," when we are told that Angelo "dukes it well in [the Duke's] absence."

    Some other examples:

  30. Jon Weinberg said,

    January 12, 2012 @ 9:51 am

    I found myself just now, preparing notes for a class I'm teaching, writing that Andrew Jackson's 1832 message explaining his veto of the Second Bank of the United States was "all very Occupy."

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