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Our Emergency Vocabulary

January 12, 2002

Have you noticed how some of our conversational protocols changed over recent months? How we quickly adopted new words and expressions or adapted old ones? And maybe even behaved with less impatient fidgeting and whispering during the national anthem?

Anyone receiving holiday newsletters from distant friends spotted the newly obligatory nod to grief or apology for untimely happiness. "Of course, we were all deeply saddened by the tragic events of Sept. 11," they'd begin, "but were delighted when daughter Elizabeth delivered our first grandchild on.... " That sympathetic format emerged early when mere acquaintances asked, "How are you doing?" For long weeks we all knew what they meant, though the singular meaning finally faded.

With global communications now virtually instant, many major news events produce new words or expressions that provide revealing little windows into the passing priorities, preoccupations and peccadilloes of a society; think "Y2K" and "chad." Not long ago, "9/11" was just an emergency phone number and a "Taliban" was, who knows, maybe some kind of Caribbean deck boss? "Burka" was not a word widely understood to suggest oppression of women. "Mullah" sounded like dated slang for money. Few associated the name Rudy with inspiring leadership. "Homeland security" resembled the rallying cry of a desperate dictator losing ground. We also heard some familiar words a lot more: "Stunned," "stunning," "shocked," "shocking," "horrific" and "unprecedented" were used a shockingly unprecedented number of times. Once, "bombs" were awful but just bombs. Then, first in the Persian Gulf War and again today, bombs were "smart" or "laser-guided." Or worn by suicide bombers. "Training camps," once reserved for preseason baseball and football teams, now belonged to "terrorists" and were soon to become "rubble."

Some of these wartime words, images and meanings will fade. Some will survive intact, while others morph over time into even newer meanings in always-elastic English. Before it became an everyday word, "snafu" was a soldier's vulgar acronym for a fouled-up military bureaucracy, while having "shot the whole nine yards" meant being in real trouble because fighter plane machine gun ammunition belts were 27 feet long.

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