How The 9/11 Attacks Changed The American Lexicon

Sep 6, 2011


NEAL CONAN, host: We'll be hearing ground zero a lot in specific reference to the spot where disaster struck New York 10 years ago. In the weeks and months after 9/11, it seems like the phrase might become permanently affixed to the tragedy at the World Trade Center. But in a piece to be published this weekend in the Boston Globe, Ben Zimmer notes that it's reentered popular usage. Ben Zimmer is executive producer of Visual Thesaurus and, and he joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back the program.

BEN ZIMMER: Oh, thanks for having me back.

CONAN: And this is a phrase originally coined by physicists. The first ground zero, of course, was the Trinity site in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

ZIMMER: Right. But we didn't actually get the phrase ground zero until after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There was a report that came out in June 1946, and it used this term ground zero to describe the spot on the ground directly underneath the aerial detonation of the atomic bombs. The spot in the air was called air zero in the report and the spot on the ground was ground zero. And the release of this report got lots of press attention. Certainly, it caught hold in the public consciousness in a time immediately after World War II, when the Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation were starting, and it became quite closely fixed on that idea of a nuclear bomb until about 20 years or so after that.

Then they started getting these metaphorical extensions. So you could talk about ground zero referring to some more figurative type of explosion or just any sort of activity, and you're talking about where the real center of that activity is happening. And so it also developed a kind of metaphorical meaning. Some people used it to mean, basically, the same thing as square one. So, back to ground zero, back to the original place.

CONAN: I like the reference you found to Carnaby Street as ground zero of the British fashion movement.

ZIMMER: That's right. That was from an American newspaper in March 1966. So that was 20 years after Americans first heard that term. And only then you start getting this new kind of meaning associated with it that was not so much tied to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

CONAN: And people felt comfortable enough with this that usage was not offensive, that to use it lightly like that was OK.

ZIMMER: Some people, I think, probably objected to it. And it, you know, it continued to have kind of a dark side very often, referring to the center of some bombing or attack or something like that. So, for instance, in 1993, when the World Trade Center was bombed, ground zero was often used there. So it wasn't surprising then on Sept. 11th that ground zero was very quickly brought into the conversation as a way of labeling the site of the devastation of the World Trade Center.

CONAN: You cite John Miller of ABC News as the person who probably may have used it first.

ZIMMER: Probably, as far as I can tell, used it first on air. John Miller was an ABC news correspondent and a former deputy police commissioner of New York City. And at 1:25, just a few hours after the towers fell, he was already reporting on the police officers who were there at the scene. He was getting phone calls from these officers who had previously reported to him, and they were describing what was going on. And there's, you know, this one story that he tells of a police officer blinded by dust and soot. A kid takes him to St. Peter's Church nearby. His - he washes his eyes out with holy water.

And then he says these are the stories of people who were there at ground zero when the first building fell. And so, by that evening, in the evening news broadcast, when the rescue and search for bodies was going on that evening, it was already very swiftly circulating.

CONAN: You wrote the unspeakable tragedy of that day had to be rendered somehow speakable, and linguistic shorthand made the process easier to bear. There was, of course, the shorthand of 9/11 as a label for the terrorist attacks, numerical sequence turning to a powerfully evocative emblem. Ground zero though, that became a specific place as well as an emblem for the attacks.

ZIMMER: It did. It did. But it - one interesting thing that's happened over the past 10 years, well, 9/11 obviously can only really refer to what happened on that day. With ground zero, all of those older metaphorical meanings have crept back in various ways. And so, it's not offensive or inappropriate to use ground zero in a metaphorical way. People do it all the time.

Michele Bachmann, for instance, when she was running, you know, before the straw poll in Iowa, had said this is ground zero in Ames, Iowa, for making Barack Obama a one-term president. Nobody objected to that. That wasn't seen as inappropriate because that more metaphorical meaning is acceptable. Ground zero did not, as it turns out, become strictly tied to the events of 9/11.

CONAN: So in one sense, it can always be used in that context, but it also means roughly the same as epicenter.

ZIMMER: That's true. To take another term that, you know, originates from earthquakes and then has this more metaphorical meaning for center of activity, especially disruptive activity.

CONAN: And you write in your piece that New Yorkers seem ready to move on as well. You quote one person saying, one blogger saying is when people go back into the work in the buildings that are being constructed at the World Trade Center site, nobody's going to say I work at ground zero.

ZIMMER: That's right. I think there's a strong case to be made for retiring ground zero. You know, obviously, we're going to be talking about it a lot for the commemoration this week and, obviously, it's gotten attention last year, for instance, with the brouhaha over the ground zero mosque, so-called.

But, you know, among New Yorkers, I don't think they're looking back so much as looking forward. They see the World Trade Center site as a place for construction and not destruction. And so, I think it may be time to put ground zero aside for that description.

CONAN: So in another 10 years, we may be referring back to what was then referred to as ground zero.

ZIMMER: Possibly.

CONAN: Ben Zimmer, thanks very much for your time today.

ZIMMER: Oh, thank you.

CONAN: Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of Visual Thesaurus and His piece on the evolution of the term ground zero appears in this Sunday's Boston Globe.

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