Tim Morton has a useful post up on his blog that pastes in the Oxford English Dictionary’s complete definition of “occupy”. Apparently somewhere in the 16th century the word more and more came to be used as the now obsolete definition 8a puts it: “To have sexual intercourse or relations with.” Here is the relevant OED gloss:
Throughout the 17th and most of the 18th cent., there seems to have been a general tendency to avoid this word, probably as a result of use of the word in sense 8. N.E.D.(1902 ) notes s.v.: ‘the disuse of this verb in the 17th and most of the 18th c. is notable. Against 194 quots. for 16th c., we have for 17th only 8, outside the Bible of 1611 (where it occurs 10 times), and for 18th c. only 10, all of its last 33 years. The verb occurs only twice (equivocally) in Shakes., is entirely absent from the Concordances to Milton and Pope, is not used by Gray; all Johnson’s quots., except 2, are from the Bible of 1611. It was again freely used by Cowper (13 instances in Concordance). This avoidance appears to have been due to its vulgar employment in sense 8’; and compares the following two instances:1600 Shakespeare Henry IV, Pt. 2 ii. iv. 142 A captaine? Gods light these villaines wil make the word as odious as the word occupy, which was an excellent good worde before it was il sorted.a1637 B. Jonson De Stylo in Discov. (1640) 112 Many, out of their owne obscene Apprehensions, refuse proper and fit words; as occupie, nature, and the like.
What seems to have happened is that a word that in its strict etymological definition from Latin meant “to seize, to take by force” and which morphed into meanings such as “employ” or “invest” eventually almost totally lost this relation with space, time, or objects and came to be used almost solely as an expression of what men do to women–or prostitutes. As the gloss above notes, at a time when printed English was on a precipitous rise the usage of this word declines in the 17th century to 18 instances (10 in the King James Bible), down from 194 in the 16th century. The 18th century only has circa 10instances which all arrive after 1776.
This is a kind of astonishing history of this word and immediately poses questions as to how the female body, the geography of sexual desire and sexual practice were also revolutionized at a time when capital as a social relation was revolutionizing the English countryside and the colonies of the New World. The word “occupy” in its most common usage in the 14th and 15th centuries appears to be “use”– The word defines what one does to a use value: I occupy land; I occupy my time– Most of the usages fall under an occupation of these two most fundamental axes of experience. Occupation is the state of how one exercises being in time or being in space. Already the word immediately broadens in metaphorical permuatations; not only can I occupy my plow or occupy my capital by investing it, but I can occupy my thoughts and feelings.
But the key referent must remain on physical space–Not only because of its most contemporary 21st century political usage–but because the English countryside was in the 15th and 16th centuries undergoing one of the most historic transformations in human experience. This process has been well documented by Marx in the 27th and 28th chapters of the first volume of Capital (and I have also blogged a three part series on the Brenner Debate, which is one way of viewing the historical transformation from feudal peasant economies to the social relation of capitalism.) But what one can say was that this process as documented in England was one of the occupation of land by a landowner class by specifically removing by force (de-occupying) a peasant population and as Marx succinctly puts it at the end of the 26th chapter: “And the history of this, their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.”
So at a time of great social unrest when one of the most important political questions would be the occupation of physical space and the entrenchment of “property rights” in political and juridicial forms that the usage of this term would turn towards an almost exclusively sexual realm. The decline of its usage is surely due to the word taking on a “vulgar” connotation, but what is truly vulgar is not sex (although the decline of the use of the word occupy charts fairly well with the rise of Puritanism in England) but the vicious expropriation of the peasants from their land. As Sylvia Federici documents in her book “Caliban and the Witch–Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation” the female body is a key locus in capitalism’s nascent and perpetual struggle against the commons. Rape, the burning of witches and mapping of the body civil are defined in their relation to the changing tactics power deployed against a rising landless mass of humanity. As the bodies of the peasants are forcefully uprooted from the land that sustained them, new tactics and ideologies become necessary weapons against the “freedom” that the capitalist relation engenders across the population. And moving back to “time”, it is precisely the wage laborer, the worker who occupies his time for another in return for monetary remuneration, who becomes the key figure in the transformation into capitalism as well as the consecutive but repressed history of the unpaid laborer on the “distaff side” and the recoding of gender –Occupy Space/Occupy Time/Occupy Bodies
— As the act of occupying time and space begins to undergo a historic shift so fundamental that human experience would in the future obey a new and previously foreign logic, the word “occupy” finds itself subsumed under a sexual signifier that suddenly drives the usage of the term underground into an unspoken realm of the real. This period of the sexualization of “occupy” aligns with the war on the female body in the 16th century. Acquisition usurps the previous ruling ideology, but under a different rubric of competitive and unlimited growth. The secret lies partially in procreation, in the occupation of the female body, the birth of a surplus population and this proliferation of humanity that will be sustained through agricultural innovation and increased toleration of widespread immiseration– As Robert Brenner shows in his polemics, England suffered no demographic catastrophe or stagnation during the long stagnation of the 17th century as did most other European regions– The population kept growing; and those who depended on the land to directly sustain them grew smaller and smaller.
Shakespeare becomes a key figure here as he was no stranger to the sexual pun or different flavors of misogyny — Federici takes characters from “The Tempest” as her touchstones– As the OED states, Shakespeare only employed the word twice in his gigantic oeuvre. Romeo and Juliet contains a directly sexual play on the word:MERCUTIO: Why, is not this better now than groaning for love? now art thou sociable, now art thou Romeo; now art thou what thou art, by art as well as by nature: for this drivelling love is like a great natural, that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole. BENVOLIO: Stop there, stop there. MERCUTIO: Thou desirest me to stop in my tale against the hair. BENVOLIO: Thou wouldst else have made thy tale large. MERCUTIO: O, thou art deceived; I would have made it short: for I was come to the whole depth of my tale; and meant, indeed, to occupy the argument no longer.
The quote from Henry IV is particularly a propos as it confronts the issue at hand directly:A captaine? Gods light these villaines wil make the word as odious as the word occupy, which was an excellent good worde before it was il sorted.
I don’t think it’s particularly random that Shakespeare questioned the transformation in the usage of “occupy” in a play that belongs to the cycle (Richard II; Henry IV part 1; Henry IV part 2; Henry 5) that document the calamities of the British crown undergoing the aftermath of the Black Plague in the late 14th and early 15th centuries and the concomitant transformation in the agrarian relations of this time period. The glorious contradictions of enjoying Shakespeare is that we read him and his characters not only as historical manifestations, but contemporary (Elizabethan & “today”) reincarnations as well — The “ill sorting” of the word “occupy” would definitely take place well after the rise of Prince Hal had occupied the lofty fields of France, but nevertheless the characters who are busy bickering in the early 15th century speak as if they are of the audience. Anachronisms such as these of course abound in Shakespeare.
In later posts I hope to merge these etymological transformations of “occupy” into a deeper analysis of Shakespeare’s histories where he charts the changing political landscape and economic environment (while reflecting this against what he sees as an Elizabethan) while weaving in our contemporary détournement of this word and its historical manifestation as a virus of power that will be overturned as we reclaim the commons both out-there and inside-here.