Friday, September 12, 2014

Remembering September 11: How One Day Changed the Way We Speak

As anyone with a calendar will know, yesterday was September 11. Thirteen years have passed since the terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C., and for many, the memories are still fresh in their minds.

Like most catastrophic events, September 11th led to a huge number of cultural changes in the United States and across the world. There were obvious changes, like how air travel security measures changed drastically seemingly overnight. It wasn't just air travel that changed however, as governments kept busy introducing new legislation to reduce the chances of a similar attack happening in the future. One cultural change that isn't as obvious has been the changes to the English language since 2001, which have been quite astounding.

Many new terms were added to the language just after the attacks, though their origins aren't as obvious now due to the passage of time. Over the years, the American Dialect Society has monitored the use of the English language in North America. It is a useful resource to learn more about how the vast majority of Americans use their mother tongue. We've put together a few of the important and lasting terms we feel were rarely uttered before those tragic events.

One World Trade Center, a new skyscraper
located near where the Twin Towers fell.

It was noted that just a year after the event, "9/11" (said as "nine-eleven") was considered the expression most likely to last. It's fairly safe to say that over a decade later, 9/11 is one of the most enduring expressions since the event. In fact, while the constituent elements of the term preexisted, these two numbers refer to a specific set of events that occurred on September 11, 2001 in most contexts and almost never signify anything else.

Pre- and Post-9/11

The events of 9/11 were considered so important in English-speaking circles that the date now acts as a divider between two eras, at least in the minds of many people.


While not a neologism, al-Qaeda, the name of the organisation who was eventually revealed to be responsible for the attacks, was a popular topic of conversation at the time and is now known to most people. 

Sadly, a number of people took the Arabic origins of the word "القاعدة" as an indication that Arabic speakers and Muslims were either terrorists or hated the United States, despite the fact that there are plenty of terrorists who aren't Arabic-speaking Muslims, as well as people who hate the United States and are neither terrorists, Muslim, nor speakers of Arabic.


The United States Department for Homeland Security (DHS) was formed in 2002 following the events of 9/11 as a response to them.

Ground Zero

Although the term "ground zero" existed "pre-9/11" (See what we did there?), when the term is capitalised and rendered as "Ground Zero", it almost always is in reference to the World Trade Center site where the Twin Towers were attacked.


While not necessarily a term from 9/11, IED, short for Improvised Explosive Device, is a term used by the US Army in Afghanistan and Iraq to refer to a type of bomb.


The Transportation Safety Administration, known by the acronym TSA, was a federal agency formed post-9/11 that was one of the key changes to airport security. Their visibility to anyone travelling by plane in the United States means the term has quickly entered the lexicon of American English.

The Linguistic Legacy

While some of the terms that were used after 9/11 have fallen out of favour and have even been forgotten, we should never forget those who needlessly lost their lives on that day, in subsequent conflicts, and in conflicts every day throughout the world.

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