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Word Games: Occupy

Some were never cynical about the Occupy movement, not even at the beginning. I wasn't one of them. Sometimes, being cynical comes too easily. It's like slipping into an armchair and being given two cheeseburgers and a milkshake for tea. Comfortable, enticing, wrong. If you're weak and lazy (I'm talking about myself, in case you thought I was coming over all accusatory), the temptation to join the snarks, the haters, the snides, is horribly strong. It takes far more effort to stand up for something, to support a cause in the face of opposition.

A sure-fire way to have your cynicism whisked out of you is to confront, face to face, the thing you're being snarky about. When I walked up to St Paul's a couple of weeks ago, I felt it wash out of me as soon as I clapped eyes on the carefully hand-made "Information Point" sign. Then I heard about the library. It is impossible (or should be) to deride a movement that has a library.

Perhaps it's the name that creates the wrong impression. Occupy sounds aggressive. But the occupiers seem to be the opposite - calm, considered and witty in the face of absurdity (endless church resignations; media obsession with empty tents; bankers). But occupy suggests invasion.

The word comes from the Latin occupare, meaning to "take over, seize, possess, occupy", a list of words that could refer to a military campaign, or a jealous boyfriend with tendencies towards violence. Neither connotation is ideal. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the word became a euphemism for sex. Doll Tearsheet, the prostitute in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part II, remarks: "God's light, these villains will make the word as odious as the word 'occupy'; which was an excellent good word before it was ill sorted."

Doll would be happy to see the "occupy" restored, no longer ill-sorted, but redeemed by its attachment to a movement that has an Occupy in every port (or bustling financial centre). The spread of Occupy around the world is one of those events that people will wonder about for years to come - NGOs and politicians will attempt to re-create the swell of feeling to serve their campaigns and elections, but you can't manufacture something like this.

It's like language, stretching and changing and reinventing itself as it moves from place to place. And it's not going anywhere.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?