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October 7, 2001 - Language of Terror, Part 1 - 2002-01-30

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- language and the impact of the September eleventh terrorist attacks on the United States.

RS: Start with something as simple as the date. September eleventh, or 9-11 as Americans write it in shorthand. Even before the attacks, nine-one-one already had special significance to Americans. It is the telephone number we dial in case of an emergency.

AA: So it is easy to see the double meaning in the various "9-11 emergency funds," as they are called. These charitable funds have been set up to raise money for the victims of the suicide hijackers in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

RS: But other terms, even the words we use to describe what happened on the eleventh of September, were not so clear.


"You wind up hearing people talk about 'bombings' and there were of course no bombs that day."

AA: Keith Woods is a journalist now on the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute in Saint Petersburg, Florida. In the words of its literature, the Poynter Institute is a "school dedicated to teaching and inspiring journalists and media leaders."


"Because the language was deficient in a lot of ways, our cultural understanding of what happened on September 11th was created on September 11th. We did not have a situation where people were flying commercial airlines filled with fuel into large, densely populated buildings. So to a certain extent the struggle has been over something as simple as that, to the bigger issues which have to do with what you call not only the people who are dead and guilty by all accounts of what happened on the eleventh of September, but also the people who assisted them, the people who are being held in detention centers around this country right now, who are of Middle Eastern descent, the people like bin Laden and the Taleban."

RS: In fact, even the use of the word "terrorist" has not been clear cut. Some news organizations, fearful of appearing biased or inflammatory, are reminding their reporters to be careful about whom they call a terrorist, especially when not quoting a newsmaker. After all, as the saying goes, one person's "terrorist" is another person's "freedom fighter."

AA: Still, on September thirtieth, CNN television posted a note on its Web page saying, quote, "There have been false reports that CNN has not used the word 'terrorist' to refer to those who attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon. In fact, CNN has consistently and repeatedly referred to the attackers and hijackers as terrorists, and it will continue to do so."

RS: Keith Woods at the Poynter Institute says it's a struggle on the part of the media to find the right language to be accurate, and also as precise and descriptive as possible. And when it comes to using the word "terrorism," he says, there is also a practical consideration -- since none of the hijackers is still alive to interview, there is no way to know their objective beyond what they did on September eleventh.


"What we know for sure is that a group of people conspired to kill the people on those airplanes and anybody else who they could kill when they crashed them. So we know that they are murderers. The rest of the motivation for terrorism, as I understand it at the very least, has to do with the impact that the act has on the people who are still alive -- the terror part of terrorism."

AA: Keith Woods on the media ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute in Florida, talking about language in America post-September eleventh. Now in case you're wondering about the origin of the word "terrorism," we checked the Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, which defines it as a "system of terror" and gives this as the origin: "Government by intimidation as directed and carried out by the party in power in France during the Revolution of 1789 to 1794."

RS: Send us your thoughts. We'd like to hear from you. Our address is or write to VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC two-zero-two-three-seven U-S-A. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.