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October 14, 2001 - Language of Terror, Part 2 - 2002-01-30

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- more about terrorism and language.


"Now is the time to draw a line in the sand against the evil ones."

RS: President Bush, speaking this past week. Geoff Nunberg is a linguist, author and social commentator. We asked him his thoughts about hearing our leaders refer to terrorists as "evil," a word with a strong moral overtone.


"'Evil' is not a word that has been much used in the political arena, and when it has been used, for example, when Reagan described the Soviet Union as an 'evil empire' he was jumped on by a lot of people not just on the left, but moderates, and there really hasn't been that reaction to the use of evil in this context, perhaps because people feel there really is something evil about what happened."

AA: He says a word that has drawn more attention among Americans is "homeland," as in President Bush's new Office of Homeland Security.


"Americans don't usually think of themselves as having a 'homeland' in that sense. It's like 'fatherland' in German or 'patris' in French. English and particularly American English doesn't have a word for that. We need some way to describe this part of America that's located here, and that's a very interesting usage. It has an Old World feel to it and it's not the sort of way we've thought about our country. I don't know if it augers a change in the way we think of America itself or if it's just a convenient or slightly awkward term that Bush grabbed for, but it's certainly interesting."

RS: Geoff Nunberg says that after the September eleventh attacks on the United States, politicians in particular seemed to reach back in time for their language.


NUNBERG: "People were using the word 'nefarious.' Both Senator Schumer of New York and Governor Davis of California used the word 'dastardly.' Now 'dastardly' is the kind of word that you usually associate with the villain in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. It's not a word that people ordinarily use to describe events in everyday life. Bush used the word 'despicable' which has a slightly Victorian cast to it.

"I don't know what the reason for this was, but I suspect that part of it had to do with the idea that that language -- words like 'dastardly,' 'despicable,' 'nefarious' -- is associated with a Victorian moral order where there was right and wrong. And this way of casting the problem as a battle between good and evil, for example, also had that Victorian resonance. And in that sense the ideology that's implicit in the use of this language does reflect more a kind of Victorian ideology than a twentieth century ideology where things aren't black and white but all painted in shades of gray."

RS: "These are words coming out of the mouths of politicians. What about the people on the street? What are we hearing from them?"

NUNBERG: "Well, we're hearing two kinds of language. We're hearing very angry language, very colloquial angry language. And we're also hearing a kind of interestingly formal language to describe -- the word 'enormity' has been used for a long time in English but tends to be used by most people now just to refer to things that are large and not things that are large and terrible, but somehow 'enormity' has re-acquired its old sense of things that are great in their horribleness and their terror. The word 'horrific' was on everyone's lips for the week following the attacks, and that again is a slightly old-fashioned word, I think. So it's as if people also are looking to the language of some earlier moral order, as if the language of ordinary English doesn't quite have the resources to deal with events of this magnitude."

AA: Sometimes, though, he says, it seems like not having the right words is just the right thing.


"We use these words like 'unuterrable, indescribable, unspeakable. In a certain sense the most damning thing you can say about events is that they pass the powers of language to describe. It's a way of talking that was very much used in connection with the Holocaust, for example. That words ought to fail us."

RS: Linguist Geoff Nunberg, speaking to us from his home in San Francisco, California. He's the author of a new book about language and culture, called "The Way We Talk Now."

AA: The way to talk to us now is to send an e-mail -- our address is And that's all for Wordmaster this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.