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September 12, 2002 - Finding Words for Sept. 11, Part 2 - 2002-09-09

Broadcast on Coast to Coast: September 12, 2002
Re-broadcast on VOA News Now: September 15, 2002

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER -- we look at how American English has kept up with a tumultuous year.

RS: Some old terms have gained new meanings since the attacks of September 11th, 2001.

METCALF: "I think the most successful one that's come in is the term 'ground zero.'"

AA: Allan Metcalf of the American Dialect Society is author of the forthcoming book "Predicting New Words."

METCALF: "Ground zero is a term that was originally used to designate the place on the ground underneath the explosion of the bomb, the atomic bomb. I think that as long as there is some remembrance of the events of September 11th to be found at ground zero, we will be using ground zero. If for some reason they completely rebuild it and don't leave much of a memorial, that would be the only way that term would lose its potency."

RS: "So we have '9-11,' 'ground zero,' and what about 'homeland security'? We weren't talking much about that last year."

AA: "That's a term I guess some people would associate with the Nazis in Germany."

METCALF: "Yes, the problem with 'homeland' is that we associate it with Europe, perhaps with the Nazis, but even if not with the Nazis, we think of 'homeland' as more a place where Americans have come from to settle in America, rather than our own country being a homeland."

AA: Allan Metcalf says it's not unusual that the lexicon created by last year's attacks has been limited.

METCALF: "Most words crop up just naturally, and they come up through using familiar words in new ways or new combinations. 'Ground zero,' again, is a very good example of that. Another term that arose in the wake of September 11th is 'weapons-grade.' It refers to uranium enriched sufficiently to be useful as a weapon. But it has been extended.

"It was used for 'weapons-grade anthrax,' and then people began talking about weapons-grade salsa, mascara, mozzarella. 'Weapons-grade' became a new way of expressing super-strength, and the fact that people were using it with these further meanings is an indication that weapons-grade is likely to be successful."

AA: We also checked with John Morse, president of Merriam-Webster, a leading publisher of American dictionaries. We asked what his staff has found about the extent to which last year's attacks have influenced American English.

MORSE: "I think where we've seen more new-word formation really goes to our own financial problems in this country with the collapse of the dot-coms and some of the other corporate problems. That is really giving us an interesting array of coinages, phrases like 'pump-and-dump' for pushing up the price of a stock. I can't really point to anything quite like that that I think has come out of any of the terrorist-related or any of the other problems or violence that we've had."

AA: "Now what about increased frequency of certain words, or words taking on new meanings as a result of either what happened on September 11th or the war that's been taking place since then?"

MORSE: "Well, I think what is happening is that some words, if they're not taking on exactly new meanings, they are taking on a new resonance. They bring with them additional connotations that they might not have had before. I think of, for instance, the word 'surreal' which was a word that came to many people's minds on the day of September 11th as they searched for words to try to find a meaning and description for what had happened, and I think that was used so frequently in the wake of September 11th that I think that word's always going to carry a bit of that connotation.

"Certainly another word that I think resonates with us now maybe in ways it didn't prior to September 11th is the simple word 'hero.' I think that on September 11th we all were confronted with real examples of heroism and people for whom we knew the term hero was very appropriate."

RS: John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster.

AA: That's Wordmaster for this week. You can find us on the Web at With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.