Maybe you hear it when your co-workers mock the office manager, who's declared a “jihad” on the petty theft of office supplies. Or, it could be your grandmother, who's still at “Sept. 10” when it comes to accepting your divorce and pretty much still wears a “burqa” to the beach.
Though linguistics experts disagree on exactly how powerful an effect the attacks of Sept. 11 and the War on Terror had on American English, it's clear in everyday speech that the terrorist-driven tragedy and the years of conflict that have followed have added a long list of words to our language.
“It was a powerful event, and it had far-reaching consequences for our society afterward, like the changes in security and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said John McCarthy, professor of linguistics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. “These all had their further effects on the language, because it wasn't just one day, it was years, and it's still going on.”
The one phrase that nearly everyone agrees will be a permanent addition to the dictionary is the very term we use to refer to the 2001 terrorist attacks — 9/11, pronounced “nine-eleven,” along with its permutations, like “Sept. 11," post-9/11” and “pre-9/11."
It refers both to the actual date of the attacks, the attacks themselves, the concept of a world-changing event and a whole slew of other associated meanings, and was used as early as Sept. 12, 2001.
“It's an all-encompassing term, meaning all of the planes that were involved,” said Grant Barrett, a vice president of the American Dialect Society and editor of “The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English,” “The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang” and project editor of the “Historical Dictionary of American Slang.”
“It's such a vague shorthand and draws up emotions of anger, fear and uncertainty, a sense of vengeance, shame even. And yet if you need to define '9/11' you can briefly say 'the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,' but there's so much more there.”
David K. Barnhart, editor and publisher of the “Barnhart Dictionary Companion” and president of the Dictionary Society of North America, said 9/11 will likely take its place alongside the terms we use for momentous events in U.S. history, like D-Day or Pearl Harbor.
“Like 'Pearl Harbor,' it runs in that vein as a watershed event that led to substantial changes in the attention people were giving items at the time,” he said.
Another variant that still sees some use is “Sept. 10,” which can be used to refer to someone with a perilously outdated outlook or who's Pollyanna-ishly naive or who clings to the notion of returning to an era of “normalcy” that he or she believes existed before the attacks.
“If they describe someone with a 'Sept. 10' mentality, they believe everything is fine and we ought not to change our behaviors,” Barrett said.
Other words that suddenly entered the American consciousness may have existed before, but took on new relevance by Sept. 12, such as jihad, Ground Zero, first responder, burqa, Islamist, and groundstop (when a terror alert grounds all air traffic).
Jihad in Arabic literally means “holy struggle,” but Americans most commonly use it now to mean a holy war or a crusade in the negative sense.
“'Jihad' was probably hardly known to [any Americans] before this, but people now use it to refer to things other than the so-called holy war,” McCarthy said. “'He's on a jihad against people who throw litter on the highways,' that kind of thing. It refers to any kind of zealotry.”
He also noted that “Islamist” — once a 19th-century word that simply meant having to do with Islam — has warped into a very different meaning, someone who professes to hold strictly to the tenets of Islam but is actually an extreme religious zealot who embraces ideas mainstream Muslims reject.
Other terms were either resurrected or mutated from existing terms. 'Ground Zero' already was in the American vocabulary, starting among World War II military men and then firmly rooting itself in the mainstream lexicon after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. As the nuclear threat diminished, so did its use, until Sept. 11 gave it brand-new prominence.
Barnhart has traced “security mom” back to 2003, a variation on “soccer moms” who some say played heavily into the outcome of the 2004 elections.
"Homeland security" was probably stolen from the Brits but caused temporary murmurs because of what some saw as its echoes of Nazi propaganda. And tangentially, the mail attacks on media centers and politicians right after Sept. 11 led to people using the word “anthrax” as a verb.
The Sept. 11 attacks led almost directly to the U.S. war in Afghanistan and, arguably (and more circuitously) to the invasion of Iraq. Politicians and the American public regularly conflate both wars with Sept. 11 and each other, and they've all added pages of new words to American English. Not surprisingly, many of these terms have military origins.
“The military attacks have put far more into the jargon than Sept. 11 itself, especially where the wonks hang out,” Barrett said. “Those two military actions have all of these new terms the soldiers are using, this language they have and are bringing back.”
Recycled terms for cowards came from as early as 1934 (“armchair commando”) or the Vietnam war (“REMF” or “rear-echelon motherf——-”), but a wholly new word that came about was "fobbit," a marriage of “forward operating base” (the safest place to be near the front) and J.R.R. Tolkien's “hobbits,” the plump, pint-sized and easily frightened creatures that seem mostly concerned with breakfast.
Fobbits had their civilian counterparts back in the States, too, in the "chickenhawks" who were ardently pro-war but always avoided active duty themselves.
“That meaning of chickenhawk is a new combination as far as I'm aware,” Barrett said.
The other meaning of chickenhawk, doubtlessly an extra intended dig, is a homosexual man who prefers young boys.
But it hasn't all been name-calling. “Hillbilly armor” may sound derogatory, but it's actually a complimentary term for the self-made protections that soldiers rigged up in the Iraq theater —welding metal plates to their vehicles to harden them.
“It calls to mind the belief that we are an improvisational people and are clever and are a little bit 'MacGyver' in a way,” Barrett said.
But exactly how much of a long-term impact Sept. 11 and the subsequent wars have had on American dictionaries has yet to be seen. Barrett said he believes the effect will prove to be minimal, especially considering that most major language changes come about because of draconian political control, as can be seen in onetime British colonies, the former West Germany or South Korea.
“The events of Sept. 11, as horrifying as they were, were really not large enough,” Barrett said.
McCarthy, on the other hand, said that though it would fall short of World War II's impact, which was made even greater by the vast social changes after the war, Sept. 11 would probably rank up there with the early space program, a long-lived national obsession that gave us words like “space walk,” astronaut” and “weightlessness.”
Barnhart said he expects some words to survive, like "cyberterror." But post-Sept. 11 neologisms will probably be most remembered in the future for the way they evoke a mindset of our particular era, and most will fade from common usage, he said.
"'Sputnik' was a very important term in 1957, but I wouldn't say it is a very important term now besides its historical significance,” he said.
“It's hard to guess which will last; there's no crystal ball in which we can look. But 'Columbinitis'? Would you say that's a fixture in the speech of 2006?”