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How 9/11 Changed the Way We Talk

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By Paul JJ Payack

AUSTIN, Texas.  September 11, 2011.  For the decade, The Global Language Monitor, and its predecessors have been keeping track of the manner in which the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 have changed the way Americans Talk.  We have updated our findings several times since, as the language has evolved with the ensuing events of the decade, most tragic (Iraq, 7/7, Afghanistan, the Global Economic Restructuring), others seemingly beyond surreal  (the Southeast Asian Tsunami, the inundation of New Orleans) a welcome few comforting.

We have found subtle yet profound differences in our everyday speech since that day when terrorist attacks unfolded   on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the pending targets in Washington, D.C., widely suspected to be the White House or the Capitol Building.  The changes we have tracked include the way Americans speak in terms of subject matter, vernacular, word choice and tone.


The first case is the use of 9/11, itself, as a shorthand for the 2001 terrorist attacks.  Using various web metrics, 9/11 outpaces any other name, including the spelled out ‘September 11th” by 7:1 margin. This designation, in itself, is quite interesting. It is true that Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed the Pearl Harbor attack as “December 7th, 1941 as a day which will live in infamy”.   But there were no “12/7″ rallying cries thereafter. Neither were the dates immortalized of the original battles of the Korean War, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident which preceded the major escalation of the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, the siege of Afghanistan siege, or the invasion of Iraq.  Only the 7/7 attacks on the London  transportation system are recorded in common memory by their date (and primarily in the UK).  .


Ground Zero

The name Ground Zero now evokes a sacred place, where the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers once stood. It is also revered as a burial ground since thousands of bodies literally vaporized in the ensuing collapse with no remains found whatsoever.

Almost universally, it is capitalized as any other proper name, with a few exceptions, most notably the New York Times (and later legitimized in the AP Style Guide).

In fact, the Times continues to insist on referring to Ground Zero in the lower case, calling it, for example, ‘the area known as ground zero’.   Admittedly, ground zero also refers to the epicenter of a nuclear blast.  In the minds of this generation, this is a close as they have ever gotten to such an event (or ever expect to).

Names are officially bestowed in a number of ways, most often by bureaucratic committees following arcane sets of rules, answering to few. In this case, we kindly request those nameless bureaucrats to follow the lead of hundreds of millions around the world who have formally bestowed upon that special place, the formal name: Ground Zero.




In mythology, heroes were men and women often of divine ancestry endowed with the gifts of courage and strength.  In reality, everyday heroes of the late 20th and early 21st centuries were sports figures (‘Be like Mike’ and ‘Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio’), comic book and cartoon characters ala

Superman and Spiderman, and all too frequently ‘anti-heroes’ known for the colossal damage they might inflict upon a helpless (and often hapless) world.

Into this tableaux, came the heroes of 9/11, very real men and women, rushing into and up the Towers as everyone else was rushing down and out; rushing the cockpit of Flight 93, with plastic knives and forks and  hot coffee, forcing the startled highjackers to abandon their plans of crashing into the Capitol or White House rather than the previously unheralded soil of Swanksville, PA; and the men and women who quietly stood their posts at the Pentagon, just doing their duty, not knowing if they would be subjected to another horrific, and more deadly, attack at any moment.

In the post-9/11 world, the term has now come to apply to any who place their lives in danger to foster the common good, especially ‘first-responders’ such as: firefighters, EMTs, and police, who quietly place their lives on the line every day.

Another historic change is the treatment of American soldiers with the respect they have been unaccustomed to since the days of the Vietnam War.  The public has evidently been able to separate the politics of the wars from the all-too-human participants.


The suffix in Persian and related languages that means, literally, ‘land of,’ hence, Afghanistan or Land of the Afghans, or Kurdistan (or Kurdish Territories), or even this relatively new moniker: Londonistan.  Talibanistan, referring to Afghanistan and the ‘tribal lands’ in Pakistan.  The suffix has been appropriated in various, often humorous, ways such as the famous New Yorker cover that referred to the various ‘-stans’ one encounters in post-Modern life.

The Demarcation of Time

The date 9/11 now has a special place as a time marker or time stamp; we now  frequently delineate time periods as either pre-9/11 or post 9/11.


The unCivil (or inCivil) War

Since 9/11, the political discourse of American politics has, arguably, descended to its lowest level since the Civil-War era when Lincoln was typically depicted as a know-nothing, Bible-spouting Baboon. Even speech of the Watergate era was spared the hyperbole commonly heard today, as respect for the institution of the presidency remained high, even though the President was widely disdained.

Today, political opponents are routinely called ‘liars,’ are typically compared to Hitler, Nazis and Fascists by those who evidently know little of either history or political theory.

When tragedies do occur (the inundation of New Orleans, the Gulf Oil Spill, the Global Economic Restructuring), no opportunities are overlooked to demonize the sitting president by the ‘loyal’ opposition.  And the vitriol has steadily increased throughout the decade as measured by various longitudinal indices of GLM.  In fact, much of the frustration with President Obama now associated with liberals and progressives has been trending upward since his inauguration, though it was overlooked by the conventional media and polling organizations because traditional polling and information gathering often finds itself at a disadvantage when compared to Internet and social-media based trend-tracking organizations.

It is very difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of this debasement of political speech and rhetoric, but it has been suggested that in the face of a nearly invisible, constantly morphing, enemy, we have turned the attack inward, upon ourselves, and our institutions.

Apocalyptic-type Terminology

In an exclusive of the worldwide media, GLM has also found a decided rise in apocalyptic-type terminology in the description of tragedies but even with events of inconvenience (such as Washington’s Snowmageddon of last winter or the recent Carpocalypse  in Los Angeles).  After all it does snow in Washington, D.C. every winter and freeways are frequently closed the world over for repairs.

This trend town alarming references include:   Biblical, Hiroshima-type references, Catastrophe, Holocaust, Apocalypse, decimation, and End-of-the-World scenarios.  These alarmist references are recorded across the full spectrum of print and electronic media.  It appears as if the world is stunned the string of early 21st catastrophes.  (By the way, the world still has to deal with the so-called end of the Mayan calendar extinction event that is scheduled to occur on December 22nd of next year.)

The global media appear mesmerized by the constant bombardment of television images of apparently rampaging, out-of-control elements, such as

the truly catastrophic  combination of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in Japan, where authorities encounter vast difficulties in keeping  their own people fed, sheltered, evacuated, and, even, from dying on the street.

During the inundation of New Orleans, the Sunday Times (London) stated, “Devastation that could send an area the size of England back to the Stone Age”.  The story continues, “AMERICA comes to an end in Montgomery, Alabama … it has been replaced by a dangerous and paranoid post-apocalyptic landscape, short of all the things fuel, phones, water and electricity needed to keep the 21st century switched on. By the time you reach Waveland, Mississippi, the coastal town of 6,800 where corpses lie amid a scene of Biblical devastation, any semblance of modern society has gone. “

Everyday language changes with 9/11

Some ten years on, we now speak of terror levels (since obsoleted), duct tape, Homeland Security, Full-body scanners, shoe-bombs and shoe-bombers, the Freedom Tower (since renamed), Shanksville, the Ground Zero Mosque, Imans, drones, high-value targets, Ramadan, Burquas, face veils, Sharia Law, and scores of other 9/11-related terms that now inhabit the English Linguasphere.