11.9.01

NYTimes: Words We Use after 9/11

In 10th Anniversary on September 10, 2011 at 7:37 am

Unlike some other momentous events in our history — World War II, say, or the Vietnam War — the attacks that took place on Sept. 11, 2001, have not particularly changed or enriched our vocabulary. Sometimes these things take a while. It wasn’t until the 1960s, for example, that the term “holocaust,” which used to mean any large-scale massacre, took on the specific connotations it has today. For now, though, you could argue that the events of 9/11 still seem so unfathomable that they have actually impoverished the language a little, leaving us with a vacuous phrase like war on terror, which manages to empty both “war” and “terror” of much their meaning, or the creepy, Nazi-sounding homeland, which seems a far less pleasant place to live than just plain America.

We do know a lot of words now that we probably should have known before, like jihad, Taliban, mujahedeen and Al Qaeda. And some that we’d just as soon forget, like T.S.A., security checkpoint, shoe bomber and progressive vertical collapse. A term like sleeper cell probably sticks in our heads because it contains a tiny hint of embedded poetry, and for the same reason it’s hard to forget those 72 black-eyed virgins whom the terrorists believed they were on their way to meet. The “black-eyed” bit is a brilliant touch, even if it’s probably a mistranslation.

But the most resonant phrases that have taken residence in our consciousness since that September morning are ones imbued with what might be called antipoetry, a resistance to metaphor or to prettification. Ground zero, for example — a term that originated with the Manhattan Project and was originally used in connection with nuclear explosions — seems particularly apt in this new context, with its sense of absolute finality, of a point that is both an end and a beginning and to which everything else refers.

And even 9/11 itself has a kind of rightness. No one says “September 11th” anymore as shorthand for that awful day. (To do so, a friend once joked, would be “so September 10th.”) There’s a pleasing, no-nonsense simplicity and precision to the expression — the same effect created by “24/7,” only starker, and with none of the exaggeration. These four syllables are right at the end of language, where words turn into abstraction. Individually, they’re just random, empty numbers, but yoked by that fateful slash they contain volumes. 9/11 — everyone knows what that means, and to say any more would be pointless. Sometimes words fail.

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