The Recency Illusion and the War on Terror
Posted by Neal on September 9, 2011
As you perhaps have heard, the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001, is tomorrow. I was considering writing something language-related about 9/11, but others have done a better job than I would have done, so I’ll link to them. First of all, there’s Geoff Nunberg’s piece on Fresh Air this week, noting that there actually haven’t been that many notable additions or changes, a thesis also argued by Dennis Baron on The Web of Language. Both Baron and Nunberg note that the name 9/11 itself is the most significant linguistic legacy of the events of 9/11. For more on that, read this other Fresh Air pieces by Nunberg, this one from 2003, in which he notes that Americans are unusual compared to other nationalities in not referring to historical events by their month and day. September 11, has become the one exception, and even more unusual is the reference to the events as simply 9/11.
Another change that may have run its course is the use of the term ground zero to refer to the site of the World Trade Center. It became essentially a proper noun and was often capitalized as such. But when my family visited New York City last month, we took the Port Authority subway from Jersey City to the World Trade Center stop, and that was how we heard New Yorkers refer to it. Furthermore, on a tour bus, the 29-year-old native New Yorker narrating the tour said it was insulting to call it Ground Zero. One World Trade Center was not Ground Zero; it was at ground 55 and counting. NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg said essentially the same thing earlier this week. In this Sunday’s Boston Globe Word column, Ben Zimmer talks about these developments as well as the history of the term ground zero from the beginning of the atomic age.
A change I noticed in the months and years following 9/11 was what I thought of as “hero inflation”. The concept of hero went from people performing amazing and noble acts of strength or bravery above the call of duty, to people doing those things within the call of duty (i.e. some firefighters and military servicemembers), to people whose job merely entailed the possibility of heroism (all firefighters and military), and finally to people who just do useful jobs. That was, I think, the high-water mark of hero inflation, embodied in the kids’ show Higglytown Heroes, in which the heroes are people who do useful jobs. I wasn’t the only one to notice, apparently. I did a search for “hero inflation” and found that the phrase had been independently invented by others with the same complaint I had. It’s particularly well argued in this article from 2002 from what appears to be a think tank called the New America Foundation.
What I thought was the most noticeable piece of language to emerge in the aftermath of 9/11 was the phrase war on terrorism, or its clipped form, war on terror. I know I’ve heard plenty of one-liners from people like Jon Stewart, wondering how one could declare war on a feeling. My sentiments exactly. I attributed it to a clumsy phrasing from the mouth of President George W. Bush, one that inexplicably caught on. Was I surprised when I did some Internet searches. First of all, here’s a Google Ngram comparing war on terrorism to war on terror, and it seems that it was only in 2005 or so that war on terror took the lead. But look: You can also find it in the 1970s and 1980s.
And when I did a Google News Archive search, I found attestations (albeit sparse) of war on terror regarding other events in almost every decade since the 1930s:
- SOVIET ARRESTS 71 IN WAR ON ‘TERROR’(The New York Times, Dec. 04, 1934)
- Jewry rejects request to aid in war on terror (Meriden Record Feb. 11, 1947)
- BRITAIN DEPORTS CYPRUS PRELATE IN WAR ON TERROR (New York Times, Mar. 10, 1956)
- International War On Terror (Windsor Star, Sept. 25, 1972)
- Haig vows war on terror (Chicago Tribune, Jan. 29, 1981)
Anyway, enough about the trivial effects of September 11, 2001. On Sunday, let’s reflect on the much more serious effects, and take a moment to remember the actual, non-inflated heroism of 9/11 — of the passengers and crew of United Flight 93, and of the first responders in New York City and Washington, D.C.