Occupy is a verb with many shades of meaning, but these senses fall into two broad categories. The word comes from the Anglo-Norman and Old French verb occupier or occuper, meaning to keep busy or to hold, and these two meanings remain the two broad categories in use today.
The French verb comes from the Latin occupare, meaning to seize by force, take possession of, fill, employ. And the first recorded English use of the verb, in the first part of the fourteenth century, is in the sense of to keep busy, to employ. We still use this sense today. We occupy our time and our jobs are our occupations.
By the end of the fourteenth century, the second meaning of occupy, to take possession of, to hold, is recorded in English use. People could occupy an office or title, a dwelling, or someone else’s land—often by force. This last has a rather unsavory connotation; the use of force to take someone’s land is generally not looked upon favorably. We recall the Nazi occupation of Europe during World War II, and during the recent war in Iraq, American politicians and generals took great pains to stress that the United States was not “occupying” Iraq. More recently, the Occupy movement, which started in 2011 to protest economic inequality and other social injustices, took its name from this sense of the word.
There is at least one sense, however, that has faded from use. Starting the late fifteenth century, to occupy a woman meant to have sexual intercourse with her. This use of occupy was usually not used to describe marital relations, but rather fornication, often in the context of prostitutes and concubines. The phrase occupying house is recorded in John Florio’s 1598 Worlde of Wordes as meaning a brothel. This sexual sense is a more specific application of the more general sense of taking possession of, often with the implication of the use of force or rape. This English usage may have been influenced by the classical Latin occupare amplexu, meaning to seize with an embrace. This sexual sense survived as a slang usage into the nineteenth century.
“occupier2,” The Anglo-Norman Dictionary, first edition, 1992.
“occupy, v.,” Green’s Dictionary of Slang, 2010.
“occupy, v.,” The Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, 2004.
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton