Patt Morrison for September 8, 2011

Vocabulary of disaster: How 9/11 did or didn’t change the way we talk

Mercer 20910

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"9/11" is one word that kids born in the 2000's can certainly spell.

How did 9/11 forever change Americans’ language? Linguist Geoffry Nunberg argues not much. He’s been making a list of words since 2001 that were connected to 9/11 and its repercussions. “They're a jumble: axis of evil and "the army you have," cakewalk, coalition of the willing and "connect the dots," "dead or alive" and "don't touch my junk," evildoers and enhanced interrogation.” There was also that one phrase: “the terrorists win,” which was employed so often that it quickly became a parody of itself, appearing in a November 2001 New Yorker cartoon that showed a man in a bar saying, "I figure if I don't have that third martini, then the terrorists win." Most of those words and sayings have already disappeared, and other than “9/11” itself, few others will probably be around in another decade. Buzzwords come and go, but it's significant that 9/11 has left almost no traces on our everyday language. Nunberg believes the ephemeral nature of the words born out of 9/11 is a testament to the relatively narrow impact 9/11 had on Americans’ lives. As proof, he points to when the American Dialect Society voted on the word of the decade in 2010, and “9/11” came in third, behind “Google” and “blog,” showing perhaps that, over the last decade, the Internet has gotten a lot more of our attention than 9/11, and it has given us a lot more new words. According to Nunberg, “If there's any difference between the new normal and the old, you couldn't tell it from the way we talk.” Do you agree? Call Patt with the 9/11 words that you’ve noticed or use in everyday language.

Guest:

Geoffrey Nunberg, linguist, UC Berkeley School of Information


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