Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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)
  • 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.

13 Responses to “The Recency Illusion and the War on Terror”

  1. The Ridger said

    “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”

    Ummmm. How about the Fourth of July? I don’t know anybody who calls it “Independence Day”.

  2. Uly said

    Quite right. That place is either the world trade center or the world trade center site, but with correcter capitalization. Maybe even the WTC if you’re writing it out, or if you want to avoid people saying “ONE WORLD Trade Center? OMG!” when it’s just an address – you know, 1 WTC, 2 WTC, 3 WTC, 4?

  3. Chris Gill said

    Sometime in the middle of the last decade, 2005 or 2006, I was a film student north of New York City considering making a student film essay which would include some footage I would shoot at the World Trade Center site. I made a telephone call to the appropriate authorities in New York and the woman to whom I explained my request for permission to film chided me, saying something along the lines of, ‘We refer to the site as ‘Ground Zero.'” I had apparently committed a shameful breach of decorum by saying “the World Trade Center site” instead. I never liked the formulation ‘Ground Zero,’ and significantly resented her assumption of linguistic and moral authority on the point, but you couldn’t argue about this sort of thing in those days for fear of being branded a traitor. Worse, I was apparently up against a sort of reinvigorated, mutated ‘upper class propriety expectation’ snobbery, part of the class-sense which in the Anglophone world is more immutable even than the American sense of self-righteousness.

  4. Ellen said

    I love “hero inflation” as I’ve never had an expression that describes how much I dislike calling everyone a “hero.” The word has been trivialized by overuse, which is kind of tragic. My city had a “Heroes Road Race” on 9/11/11 – what the heck does that mean? What word can I use when someone really does behave heroically?

    • Philip Whitman said

      I agree. I didn’t use the clever term “hero inflation”, but on July 31, 2010, I posted a story “There Are Heroes and There Are Heroes” on my own blog, wherein I tell about sitting next to a Medal of Honor recipient on a plane ride from Cincinnatti. My last sentence was “Nowadays, you might be called a hero if you rescued a cat from a tree, but not so much back in the 1950’s, and I knew I had been sitting next to a genuine American hero of the first water.”

  5. […] been thus stretched. Neal Whitman points out that “war on terror/terrorism” has surfaced repeatedly since the 1930s. And the “war on drugs”, another of America’s great gifts to […]

  6. […] Rather than try to add to the commentary on them, we will send you to Neil Neal Whitman, who rounds up some of the linguistic commentary on them. I don’t usually blog on Sunday, and in […]

  7. […] had been thus stretched. Neal Whitman points out that “war on terror/terrorism” has surfaced repeatedly since the 1930s. And the “war on drugs”, another of America’s great gifts to the […]

  8. tauno8 said

    I am from Estonia and found this blog through a link in The Economist blog. I like the term “hero inflation” and I’d like to point out that something very similar was also present in the Soviet Union.

    I don’t remember it personally – I was 5 years old when USSR broke, and on several reasons I don’t like when my country is referred to as an ex-USSR republic, although it is 🙂 but I know that in USSR, the World War II produced loads of “heroes”, it was an official title given for bravery at war (and not only to people – there were also lots of “hero cities”). When the war had ended, the country still needed heroes, so this “hero inflation” thing was taken to absurd – e.g. if you check the Wikipedia article for Brezhnev (a Soviet leader for decades), you see that he had more than 10 separate “hero” titles (there are also some links in that article that have more information on these titles). There also appeared a title of a “work hero” – e.g. there was a hero milkmaid from Estonia.

    It’s all history by now. In Estonia, at least in official use, this word is used mostly for life-savers, but the press uses that word quite often to make headlines spicier (although it’s also being criticized by linguists) – “heroes” can be e.g. reality show stars or, occasionally, even criminals (who can be called literally e.g. “knife heroes”) 😀

  9. […] 5. Recency Illusion […]

  10. […] 5. Recency Illusion […]

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