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Speaking Terms

The Two Sides of Coined Phrases

It's survival of the catchiest in the evolution of Sept. 11-speak: Some stick, others don't.


The phrase sinks in with sound-bite precision: "threat fatigue," a condition in which Americans--weary of false alarms--no longer take terrorism warnings seriously.

On Sunday, the New York Times quoted unnamed senior government officials who first used the phrase to partly explain why they did not issue a public warning on the possibility of a terrorist attack around the Fourth of July. Since then, other media have picked up the reference, the latest addition to the evolving Sept. 11-related lexicon.

Some of the new words and phrases don't stick, but "threat fatigue" appears to have staying power, said Paul J.J. Payack, president and chief executive of the Web portal "It's excellent," Payack said. "It gets right to the point. Everyone knows what you mean as soon as you say it."

"Threat fatigue" reflects a growing public inclination to tune out the slew of news reports--corroborated by authorities or not--about possible attacks on such targets as apartment buildings, California bridges and Catalina Island.

The phrase is part of an expanding list of references that make sense only in the context of Sept. 11.

In April, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer tried to rework the phrase "suicide bomber" to more strongly focus on the killings involved in the Palestinian attacks in crowded Israeli locations. He coined "homicide bomber" in its place, but it never caught on.

The original phrase already was well known, Payack pointed out. "You can spin it in other ways, but it's still suicide bombing," he said.

On the other hand, words or phrases that are coined to describe new situations have a better chance of sticking.

Catch phrases, in fact, tend to come about when two familiar words such as "threat" and "fatigue" are put together in a new context that makes immediate sense. The concept spins off the already familiar phrase "donor fatigue." Other word combinations would not have resonated before the terrorist attacks--"weaponized anthrax," "shoe bomber" or "dirty bomb."

Since the attacks in New York and on the Pentagon, linguistic experts have tracked developments in the language as a kind of metaphor to reflect the changing times. The new words and phrases typically start in the media or in government. But, like "homicide bombers," not all Sept. 11-related phrases catch on, including "the color wheel of terror," which columnist Arianna Huffington used to describe the government's color-coded alert system reflecting five levels of terror warnings.

Also, several nominations for the American Dialect Society's Words of the Year list for 2001 no longer pop up in common usage. Among them: "facial profiling," the scanning of faces on video as a tool to help identify possible terrorists, and "burka blue," describing the color of the head-to-toe covering worn by some Afghan women.

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