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Let's Look At The Language

September 10, 2011

Sometimes an unremarkable day is the one we should cherish the most

Ten years ago today, it was a summery Sept. 10 here in Central New York. The temperature hovered in the 80s and there was an occasional drizzle here and there. Mostly, though, it was just another Monday. The weekend had given way to a new work week, and classrooms bustled with kids who were still settling in to the early days of a new school year.

In other words, a perfectly unremarkable day. Folks went to work and came home from work. Meals were made, dishes were washed, homework was done. People laughed, loved, talked, argued, ignored each other, and whatever else people do on perfectly unremarkable days. The next day was a blue-sky beauty in the 70s. But it was not the change in weather that would leave its indelible imprint. If only. On Tuesday morning, at 8:46, the normality of everything unremarkable vanished in an instant and our entire world changed ... forever.

As we reflect this month on the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001, we can't help but recall those horrific moments and their aftermath with vivid recollection. Life as we knew it had stopped, and our personal concerns and private little lives with our petty little differences ceased to exist. For weeks, we all watched the same images, prayed the same prayers, and waved the same flags. By the time November arrived, we had forged a unified conscience and pride that had not so defined a Thanksgiving since our first one at Plymouth Plantation in 1621.

In December, the holidays were marked by a collective desire to contribute in financial and other tangible ways to the victims' families and to acknowledge the efforts and sacrifices of our uniformed heroes at home and abroad. When the New Year began, we instinctively knew that Sept. 11 was not over, and we were right. Ten years later, we know that to still be true.

Of all the dreadful acts of human aggression (e.g., at Pearl Harbor) that have marred the timeline of modern civilization, there is perhaps none with as much of a persistent influence on our everyday lives as the ungodly assaults that took place on Sept. 11, 2001. I don't know of another single event that has generated as much immediate (as well as ongoing) and likely permanent revision to our language. I would even say that there is no term new to the vocabulary of the 21st century that exceeds the prominence (and historical permanence) of "9/11." Just below the surface of that is a stream of related terminology and phraseology that is either completely new or which has taken on new post-9/11 significance.

Consider these following examples of such, and think about how familiar and entrenched in our lives they have become over the past 10 years: Global War on Terror (GWOT), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Ground Zero, Islamophobia, al- Qaida, biowarfare, Axis of Evil, sleeper cells, Twin Towers, "a field in Pennsylvania," Osama bin Laden, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Abu Ghraib prison, jihadist, The Falling Man, survivor guilt, bioweapons, "Let's roll," Flight 93, anthrax, border patrol, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), homegrown terrorists, counterterrorism, the Taliban, first responders, World Trade Center (WTC), improvised explosive device (IED), threat level orange, "Please remove your shoes," Transportation Security Administration (TSA), waterboarding, cybersecurity, enhanced interrogation, suicide bombing, anger unity, 3-1-1 rule ("3-ounce bottles in 1-quart zip-top bag, 1 bag per traveler"), agroterrorism, dirty bombs, Guantanamo ("Gitmo"), body scan, ethnic profiling, "If you see something, say something."

Few of us will need to be nudged into remembrance tomorrow. For most of us, these past 10 years have erased neither our grievous memory nor our unflagging resolve to seek justice and preserve freedom. Of all the bywords to survive our 9/11 experience, none ring truer than these: "We will never forget."

Edmeston resident Christine A. Lindberg, senior U.S. lexicographer for Oxford University Press, is the principal content editor of Oxford's American English dictionaries and thesauruses. Opinions expressed by Lindberg in this column are done so independently, and do not necessarily reflect the policies and practices of Oxford University Press. Have a question or comment relating to the English language? E-mail: languagewithlindberg@gmail.com. Selected submissions will be answered here periodically.

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