Since Sept. 11, We’re Watching Our Words

Geoffrey Nunberg is a Stanford linguist, usage editor of the American Heritage Dictionary and author of "The Way We Talk Now."

The day major league baseball resumed play after the attacks, I was watching the San Francisco Giants game on TV. Mike Krukow was describing the replay of a monster homer that Andres Galarraga had hit into the centerfield bleachers. “Boy,” he said, “He really kil ... he really hit that one good.”

We’re all watching our language these days, as we’re suddenly made aware of how our speech is pervaded with metaphors of war and violence. (Actually, I first had that as “shot through with metaphors” and then thought better of it.) New products have ceased “to bomb,” dot-com companies no longer “crash and burn,” and people are suddenly sheepish about yelling “bloody murder” when their newspaper is late. “You may catch some flak on that”; “We’ll see what happens after the dust clears"--I’ve never heard so many people end their sentences with “so to speak.”

It’s as if we were trying to purge our speech of any images that might evoke an inadvertent irony, however far-fetched it might be. Advertisers are anxiously scanning their copy for anything that might appear inappropriate. Coca-Cola canceled an ad series built around the upbeat slogan ‘Life Tastes Good'--we may have a heightened sense of the sweetness of life right now, but that feeling is more solemn than anything we associate with a soft drink.

After the attacks, songs considered inappropriate for airplay ranged from the perfectly reasonable--AC/DC’s “Safe in New York City"--to titles like “Ticket to Ride” and “Walk Like an Egyptian,” a case of racial profiling in every sense of the term.


For the moment, at least, we seem to have turned into a nation of scrupulous literalists. Some people see this as the sign of a reevaluation of American priorities. “The Age of Irony died yesterday,” wrote Andrew Coyne in Canada’s National Post on Sept. 12, a report confirmed a few days later by no less an authority than Vanity Fair editor and Spy co-founder Graydon Carter: “There’s going to be a seismic change. I think it’s the end of the age of irony.” Roger Rosenblatt came to the same conclusion in a Time essay that decried the intellectuals and “pop-culture makers” whose detachment and unseriousness now seems a dangerously empty pose: “The ironists, seeing through everything, made it difficult for anyone to see anything.”

You can hear echoes of that sentiment in the way people have been foreswearing the trivialization of language. One reporter told me that she felt she could never again use “hero” to describe a sports figure or pop star without slighting New York firemen and the passengers on Flight 93.

Some of this newfound circumspection is an honest reaction to the horror of events and the perspective they give us. There’s no question the Sept. 11 attacks will have some enduring effects on the way we talk. People will be more hesitant to describe every little reversal and contretemps as a “tragedy,” and it will be a long time before a Microsoft executive will again accuse a competitor of pursuing a strategy of “patent errorism.”

But the new circumspection that some commentators are calling for has a suspiciously familiar sound. When you think back to the tone of the American press before the attacks, what’s embarrassing isn’t that it took significant events lightly--quite the contrary. I think of all those cable news shows whipping the nation into a weekly frenzy of outrage about oversexed congressmen and overaged Little Leaguers. It’s not surprising that commentators have reacted to the attacks by admonishing others for failing to take life seriously. They’re always more comfortable trafficking in indignation than in genuine anger.


But Americans aren’t about to turn into dour literalists, particularly now. These really are unprecedented times, when the administration tells us that the most patriotic thing that most of us can do now is to get on with our normal daily lives, but to remain alert for terrorists at the mall and anthrax in the mail.

That demand inevitably leaves us feeling tense and uneasy: For the duration, all our pleasures are likely to be slightly guilty ones. But there’s a time-honored adaptive strategy for dealing with that kind of dissociation. It’s called irony. From Brecht and “The Good Soldier Schweik” to “Catch-22" and “M.A.S.H.,” from the war poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Henry Reed to those of Randall Jarrell, irony has always been a natural response to the condition of trying to live a normal life in ominous times.

Irony and circumspection both begin with a heightened awareness of the moral ambiguity of language. The difference is that ironists embrace those ambiguities. They aren’t diffident about using words in their banal, everyday meanings, even as they’re aware of the more auspicious senses that are always hovering in the background. Rosenblatt had it wrong: Irony is a way of seeing things and seeing through them at the same time.

This hasn’t been a very common sensibility in recent years, whatever critics may say. In fact, real irony has become so rare in American life that people like Rosenblatt seem to have forgotten what the word actually means. They confuse irony with cynicism and fatuousness. But maybe all those “so to speak"s and “as it were"s with which people are peppering their speech are signs of rediscovering the ironic point of view. “When things get back to normal"--every time someone says that, I can hear the invisible finger quotes around “normal.” It’s a device we’ll be needing for a long time.