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'9-11': The Term Sparks a Minor War of Words

An appropriate expression to describe Sept. 11 attacks defies consensus among linguists.


Nearly four months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there still is no consensus--even among English-language experts--on how to refer to the events. Last week, the American Dialect Society voted "9-11 and its equivalents" as its Word of the Year 2001, the phrase or term that best characterizes the previous year. Meanwhile, online discussion forums are featuring touchy exchanges on just what to call the attacks in Manhattan and at the Pentagon following the recent announcement of a controversial selection on another group's annual list of banished words: "9-11," or "nine-eleven."

At its annual meeting in San Francisco, the American Dialect Society's linguists and lexicographers decided that the Word of the Year should also include "911" and "Sept. 11." Some members had argued against choosing number references, saying that outside North America, the use of "911" as an emergency phone number is not widely known. Also, in Europe and elsewhere, "9-11" is confusing, because dates are abbreviated by giving the day first and then the month (For instance, Sept. 11 would be "11-9").

"Others were saying, 'It doesn't matter how the Germans do dates. It's an American thing,'" said Wayne Glowka, chairman of the society's New Words Committee.

But members agreed that the title should go to an expression that refers to the attacks, so they settled on "9-11" and "all the rest of them," Glowka said. The term beat out finalists such as "ground zero," "burka" and "let's roll," the phrase used by a passenger who helped thwart hijackers on the United Airlines flight that crashed in Pennsylvania.

The group has selected a Word of the Year since 1990 as a way to highlight the dynamics of the language. Last year, "chad" was its Word of the Year, the same term that topped the "List of Words Banished From the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness," released by Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. This year, the banished-words list's most controversial entry is "9-11," which is referred to as an "annoying" or "cute" abbreviation by members of the public who submitted nominations. "Last year, we had Y2K and 24/7," wrote one nominator from Michigan. "This new digital language (digitalk?) should be banned ... Do we refer to the ... sinking of the Titanic ... [as] 4-14? A tragic event of such proportions should not be confused with a telephone number." Added one nominator from Madison, Wis.: "It's overused and sounds ridiculous. ... "

The university isn't proposing any alternatives, said spokesman Tom Pink. "How do you wrap it up into one word? Maybe you can't, or maybe we shouldn't." Several people have criticized the university for adding "9-11" to the banished-words list, saying its inclusion trivializes the tragedy.

On the banished-words list message board, one observer wrote: "Consider 9-11's pedigree: We don't call her Jennifer Lopez, but 'J-Lo.' We didn't call the movie "Independence day," but 'ID-4.' We don't work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but '24/7.' Do we really want to use this same cloth to fashion a word for [the attacks]?"

On, a news and discussion Web site, the list drew this reaction: " ... this isn't about the World Trade Center. This isn't about New York. To use those ideas in the description of this event is to miss the point. Simply, it is a moment in time, in history, not a place or a specific structure. 9-11, even etymologically, is perfect."

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