Word Watch – April 2002

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It is always interesting to see the effect of public events upon our language. The case of Sept. 11 and its aftermath is especially interesting, because the effect has been – what shall I say? – curiously abstract.

Take the name of the event itself: “Nine Eleven.” It’s impossible to think of a less inherently meaningful designation of an historical event. It’s like calling America’s day of independence “Seven Four.” The closest analogue is the famous “days” of the French Revolution (e.g. “9 Thermidor”), but they don’t consist entirely of numbers.

There are several reasons for the abstractness of the name for what-happened-last-September. The terrorist attacks took place in several locations, so a name can’t be built on “New York.” And if you called what happened “The Terrorist Attacks,” you would miss part of its meaning. As perceived by the American populace, the event was a cause of regret (for the great loss of life), but it was also a cause of celebration (of the courage of the victims and rescuers).

A less successful naming is “Ground Zero,” for the site of the former World Trade Center. The name responds adequately to the problem of locating a concise phrase for a long, messy concept. “The Site of the Former World Trade Center” clearly wouldn’t do. “Ground Zero” suggests, however, that the place is like a bomb site – any old bomb site – which it clearly isn’t. The phrase is too open-ended, and at the same time too erroneously specific, since the obvious associations of “Ground Zero” are with World War II.

“Ground Zero” will always be nothing more than default terminology.

“Fighters” is a locution that did not begin with Sept. 11 but has been immensely popularized by its aftermath. There are no more “soldiers” left in the world; they are all either highly specific “American Special Forces operatives” or highly generalized “Islamic fighters.” Use of “fighters” responds, no doubt, to the difficulty of deciding whether those guys in Afghanistan are really in an army or what, dude, but it also responds to the movement for social equivalency that gave us “worker,” as in “sex worker” and “home worker” (for” prostitute” and “housewife,” respectively), not to mention “shooter” (for “murderer,” or “terrorist” or “assassin” or “crazed postal worker” or “policeman”), the bottom line of which is simply” anyone who shoots a gun.”

Much more inspiring are two foreign additions to our vocabulary, both of them abstract enough to have immense expressive possibilities. One is the syllable “bin,” from “Osama bin Laden,” which has now acquired the meaning of “fanatic in some creepy, foreign way”; thus, “Johnny bin Laden” (John Walker Lindh) or Janet bin Reno (Janet Reno). The other is “Taliban,” a word that Americans gladly adopted without even caring to have it translated. All they needed to know was the abstract concept – some bunch of self-righteous weirdos trying to boss everyone else around. Since nobody cares what the word originally meant or how it was originally used or even whether it was supposed to be singular or plural, one can say with impunity, “He is a Taliban,” but also, “The Taliban fight on.” And the satiric potential is enormous. It’s easy to see that everyone from NOW to MADD to those grasping relatives of yours can quite amusingly and accurately be called the Taliban. The word isn’t quite as useful as some words popularized by earlier wars (“spam” immediately comes to mind), but it will do, and do nicely, when those relatives come around.

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