The best zinger of the 2008 campaign came from then-Senator Joseph Biden, Jr. when speaking about former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani: "There's only three things he mentions in a sentence —a noun, a verb, and 9/11." The erstwhile Dumbo candidate for President in 2008 was a Rudy One-Note in attempting to make political hay out of 9/11/2001. If this is (fair & balanced) numerology, so be it.
[x Cronk Review]
The Mystery of "9/11"
By Allan Metcalf
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On September 11, 2001, everything was a mystery at first. Out of the clear blue sky, airplanes were crashing into the tallest buildings in New York City and then the military headquarters of the United States, and another seemed destined for the White House or the Capitol. What was going on?
The explanations came with surprising rapidity, though too late to prevent the collapse of the twin towers and the deaths of nearly 3,000 at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. But it took a while to grasp the ungraspable event of a coordinated terrorist attack by air on two of our iconic locations. Even a name for the event was difficult to determine. What could we call an attack so widespread?
The name we eventually arrived at by unspoken consensus was “9/11.” And while the other mysteries of the unthinkable attack were solved, how we ended up with “9/11” remains unexplained. Even more mysterious is who invented it, and when and where it was first used.
The designation “9/11” is so unusual that nobody would have predicted its success. New words that become permanent residents in our common vocabulary almost always are derived from words we already know, either by adding a new meaning to a familiar word or by combining familiar elements. “Ground Zero” at the World Trade Center site was a new meaning attached to a familiar term for the point of detonation of a bomb. “Homeland security” gave a new meaning to two familiar words.
But “9/11”? It’s not even clear whether to call it a word. True, we had precedents for labeling an event with the month and the day: the Fourth of July for one, and December 7, 1941 (“a date that will live in infamy”), for another. Neither of those, however, is ever represented in numeral form, neither “7/4” nor “12/7.”
Still, the form involving two numbers separated by a diagonal slash is familiar. Aside from using it to mark the date on a document, we have “24/7,” meaning around the clock. There’s also the chain of convenience stores, though it’s officially “7-Eleven” rather than “7/11.”
And the disparate locations of the attacks of September 11, 2001, prevented designating them collectively by location, like “Pearl Harbor.”
So there is a certain logic to “9/11.” By chance the numerals are the same as those for telephone emergencies, so that may have encouraged the use of “9/11,” though the latter is always pronounced “nine eleven,” not “nine one one.”
But its exact origin remains a mystery, as far as I am aware. It’s unusual enough that it is likely to have been invented only once.
And it must not have been used immediately. On September 11 itself, references were simply to “terrorist attacks,” perhaps “today’s attacks,” and on September 12, to “yesterday’s attacks.” President Bush’s remarks on that day, and at Ground Zero three days later, make no use of “9/11.” His declaration of “war on terror” on September 20 likewise didn’t use “9/11.”
I suspect “9/11” was first used in a newspaper headline or news-channel crawl, by an editor who needed a concise designation for the whole complex of attacks. Once one editor used it, others would have seen its utility and picked it up. After that, speakers and writers would have begun using “9/11” on other occasions that didn’t require conciseness.
I suspect it was in use by the second or third week after the attacks. By year’s end it was easily the choice of the American Dialect Society as most important Word of the Year. More than a decade later, it remains all too familiar, a reminder of that terrible day.
Is it more than a trivial question to ask about the origin of “9/11”? I think so. Because “9/11” signals the change from experiencing those events right now to remembering them back then, the turning point, when we began to think of the attacks and their immediate aftermath not as part of the present but as something in the past. There is an opportunity for some historian to clarify exactly when and where the immediate experience of September 11, 2001, had receded enough to become an event to look back on. Ω
[Allan Metcalf is Professor of English and College Registrar at MacMurray College (IL). Metcalf is the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society, and author of OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word (2011). Metcalf received a B.A. with high honors in English from Cornell University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley.]
Copyright © 2012 The Chronicle of Higher Education
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