No Language Legacy: Where’s The Sept. 11 Vocab?


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That didn’t happen here. In those first days, it’s true, Americans were desperate to do something to help. People drove across the country to lend a hand at Ground Zero, lined up to give blood, collected food and clothing. It was heart-warming, but as it turned out, it wasn’t really necessary: This war wasn’t going to have much of a homefront. In fact, if you were lucky enough not to be one of the few people whose lives were devastated, then by the weird logic of terrorism, you could be most helpful by not doing anything different at all. The patriotic thing to do, the president told us, was just to go to Disney World as planned.

I think of that absurd but telling phrase that appeared just after the attacks: If we cancel the party or don’t send the marching band to the Rose Bowl, then the terrorists win. Everybody knew it was a rationalization; al-Qaida weren’t gnashing their teeth at the thought that Ellen DeGeneres would be hosting the Emmys as planned. And by November the phrase was a joke. The New Yorker ran a cartoon by J.C. Duffy that showed a man in a bar saying, “I figure if I don’t have that third martini, then the terrorists win.”

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Yet people kept using the phrase. It helped them or their customers square their consciences, as it became clear that in the period that followed this new Pearl Harbor, only a few people would be called on to do the serious sacrificing. For the rest of us, the actual hardship would chiefly extend to having to leave for the airport an hour earlier.

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Even after the dissipation of that sense of common purpose, people didn’t tune everything out. We were still anxious and concerned, about both terrorism and about the war on it, even if now those were a focus of contention more often than of unity. And we were all grateful to the 5 or 10 percent of Americans, civilian and military, who had chosen to put 9/11 and its consequences at the center of their lives — though now, of course, “supporting the troops” was less arduous than it was in World War II, when it involved giving up some Saturdays.

But when the dust cleared, 9/11 was no longer uppermost in our thoughts. When the American Dialect Society voted on the word of the decade in 2010, 9/11 came in a distant third behind Google and blog. It’s hard to argue with that ranking — the Internet has gotten a lot more of our attention than 9/11 over the last decade, and it has given us a lot more new words. If there’s any difference between the new normal and the old, you couldn’t tell it from the way we talk.

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