New Words for a Nation’s Anguish


Early in the campaign to hunt down Osama bin Laden, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ruminated about the many changes this unconventional war would require of Americans. Among them: learning a new lexicon.

So it is that we now know anthrax can be “weaponized,” that a military action can cause “blowback” and that adding “bio-” to the beginning of any word gives it nerve-racking dimensions.

This is our new vocabulary of anguish, and anger, as the events of Sept. 11 and the mysterious mailings of anthrax have made society conversant with the uncomfortable jargon of warriors and doctors, policy wonks and bureaucrats.


And still words fail.

“I watch people struggle to find a word that matches how deeply outraged they are,” said Wendalyn Nichols, editorial director for Random House Reference, which publishes Webster’s College Dictionary. “‘Tragedy’ is not strong enough. ‘Atrocity’ is not strong enough. We’re trying to find words to call the terrorists.”

While there often is a lag between a transcendent event and its effect on language, experts say they have already noticed some of our familiar words being stretched to fit new meanings.

David K. Barnhart, whose quarterly Barnhart Dictionary Companion tracks new words and usages, has already noted the evolution of some words. Among them are using “plane” as a verb, as in “We’ve been planed” in reference to using planes as missiles; “the pile” for the rubble left behind at the Trade Center; and “debris surge” for the stories-high cloud of dust, glass shards and papers that pulsed through lower Manhattan.

Overall, Barnhart said he has found only a handful of words that will bear mention in the next edition of the Dictionary Companion, such as “theo-terrorism” to describe terrorism born of religious extremism and “talibanize” to refer to the takeover of a government by Islamic fundamentalists. “One set of usage that was a little surprising is the term ‘ground zero’ to refer to, well, you know what it refers to,” said Ron Butters, who edits American Speech, a quarterly publication of the American Dialect Society that, in part, tracks the evolution of words. “It’s a new use of an old phrase, one that I find personally a little irritating. It used to only refer to the center of an explosion of an atomic bomb.”

For all the words that have moved from the margins to the center of our linguistic pages, so far a nationally agreed-upon term for what happened Sept. 11 has not emerged. Many people--and media--rely on “terror attacks” to describe all that happened, and what has followed. Some refer to “the events.”

Many simply refer to the date as numbers: 9-11 or 9-1-1, with its echoes of an emergency call. Still others use “World Trade Center” as an all-encompassing stand-in, making a footnote of those who died in the Pentagon and in the Pennsylvania field where the fourth hijacked airliner crashed.

And the period before the attacks has taken on the shorthand “so 9-10” for some people. Art critic Arthur Danto reported in the Nation that he overheard the phrase at an art opening; Rima McKinzey, a Bay Area freelance dictionary editor, said she’s heard it as a reference to triviality.

“It’s the sensitivity of before what happened on the 11th, meaning that it’s probably shallow or relatively unimportant,” McKinzey said, adding that as military efforts continue, new words will probably surface. “I also think people are tiptoeing around Islamic issues so that whatever [words] are developing [in conversation] might be offensive and are not being used more generally.”

Even the word “war” itself is changing. Initially referring to a state of combat between nations, lexicographers say President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in the mid-'60s likely was the first use to the give the word broad metaphorical dimensions, falling victim to the advertising jingoism that has made us a nation of labelers.

Now “war” has bridged those uses in “war on terrorism,” in which the enemy is a shadowy network of individuals, not a state, yet it is targeted by an overtly military campaign.

“Rather than an extension, this seems to be a redefinition based on other uses,” said Butters, chairman of Duke University’s Linguistics Program and a professor of English and cultural anthropology. “It’s a subtle point, but from a linguistic perspective, I would have to say that the meaning of war has changed just a little bit.”

The larger effect on language, though, has been the reinvigoration--or broad embrace--of little-used words that have been around for years. “Cutaneous,” for instance, evolved in the 1500s from Latin and means “related to skin.” It has found wide usage as a modifier for the less-lethal version of anthrax--a word that also previously came up rarely in mainstream conversation.

“You’re going to find ‘anthrax’ being used a lot more in the last two months than it was in the previous 60 years,” Butters said.

In fact, a search of the Dow Jones Interactive database of some 6,000 U.S. publications found 160 references to “anthrax” in the month before the attacks and 2,905 references in the month after, even as investigators say they’re still unable to determine whether the anthrax cases are related to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Unknown, too, is the breadth of the gap between media usage and popular usage. Just because Pentagon beat reporters use the phrase “collateral damage” doesn’t mean it’s cropping up in neighborhood conversations.

Still, experts say media usage reflects accepted definitions while charting public interest in specific subjects. And with war in the news, military terminology is flowing freely. “Collateral damage” had 161 references in the Dow Jones database in the month before the attacks and 1,061 in the month after. “Ground zero” went from 349 mentions to 4,192, and “bioterrorism” from 25 to 1,368.

“Hero,” surprisingly, held nearly steady, going from 5,473 mentions to 5,759--evidence, most likely, of its overuse in the days before the attacks. Time will probably bring others forth as language catches up with shared experience. That is the way language works, linguists say: slowly, and by consensus.

Although some events have made quick leaps into language. Within two months of the raid, “Pearl Harbor” became synonymous with the onset of U.S. involvement in World War II, said word-tracker Barnhart.

Similarly, the satellite Sputnik, for example, zipped at warp speed from headline to dictionary in 1957 as the Soviets beat the U.S. to first base in the space race. The acronym AIDS also had a speedy shift from creation to the mainstream in the early ‘80s.

This is different, defying easy summarization in a few syllables.

“It hasn’t gelled like it did for Pearl Harbor,” Barnhart said, “It’s in flux. My guess is that by this time next year we’ll know, but I just don’t know what [the term] will be.”

Which brings us back to the failure of language to evolve at the same pace as our emotions, and the tenuous path words travel between thought and expression.

But the words will catch up, Barnhart said. We will find our expression, and we will agree on a shorthand way of referring to events that we still can barely describe.

Like the healing of wounds, it just takes time.9-10’ for some people. ‘It’s the sensitivity of before what happened on the 11th, meaning that it’s probably shallow or relatively unimportant.’