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The Language Legacy Of 9/11: How A Single Day Changed Our Language

It would be hard to pack more history, context, and visceral meaning into two numbers than we do in the term 9/11. That day changed so much—about the world, modern life, and even the language we use.

And so much has changed in the 20 years since. But many of the lasting effects still feel immediate today. The recent withdrawal of US forces in Afghanistan, its rapid fall to the Taliban, and the terrorist bombings in Kabul have renewed the focus on the far-reaching consequences of the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath.

On this anniversary, we’ll look at some of the ways in which these consequences have shaped our language, and unpack some of the consequences of that language itself.

9/11

Perhaps the most lasting and recognizable language legacy of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, is the shorthand way we refer to the event: 9/11.

Referring to an event with its numerical date format had some precedent before 9/11. The protest movement that occurred in Burma (Myanmar) on and around August 8, 1988 (8/8/88) became popularly known as the 8888 Uprising.

Other notable dates in US history are memorable, but aren’t referred to in shorthand. December 7, 1941, for example, is a date that lives in infamy, but it has never been commonly referred to as 12/7.

After 9/11, the numerical date format was also used to refer to the related terrorist bombings in London on July 7, 2005—an event referred to in the UK and elsewhere as 7/7.

For many people, just hearing the term 9/11 instantly calls to mind the horrific scenes and complex aftermath of the attacks.

The name encapsulates an event that is not so simple to summarize. Orchestrated by Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners, crashing two into the Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon. Another plane crashed in Pennsylvania.

Around 3,000 people died that day and in the days after, including those in the planes and in the buildings, as well as many of the first responders who arrived to help at the scene. But the full human toll of the attacks is difficult to quantify. Thousands more were injured or exposed to toxic dust when the towers fell, and cases of cancer and other diseases continue to be attributed at least in part to that exposure. The deaths from associated health problems number in the thousands, likely exceeding the initial death toll. Families of victims of the attack—often referred to as 9/11 families—continue to seek proper transparency, compensation, and care.

first responder

The term first responder had been gaining in use since the 1970s, but the much-celebrated heroism of firefighters, emergency medical workers, and police officers on 9/11 helped to popularize it as a catchall term for a person whose job is to be the first to respond to emergencies. (In a similar way, the COVID-19 pandemic has popularized terms like frontline workers, referring to doctors, nurses, and other professionals on the “front lines” of healthcare.)

On September 11 and many other occasions, first responders have been the ones known for running toward danger to help. Notably, many first responders lost their lives trying to save others that day at the World Trade Center site that became known as Ground Zero—establishing a new, more specific meaning for that term.

The language of patriotism

In addition to the championing of first responders and their rescue efforts, the period following 9/11 was marked by increased displays of patriotism in the US, and this is reflected in much of the language used at the time, especially in the names of several government entities. The sweeping antiterrorism bill passed in October 2001 was named the PATRIOT Act. In December 2001, Congress declared September 11 as Patriot Day. In 2002, the Department of Homeland Security was established as a new government agency. This heightened use of language associated with patriotism and traditional American values is echoed in the nickname of the One World Trade Center skyscraper that was built at the site of the Twin Towers: the Freedom Tower.

Learn more about the difference between and impact of patriotism vs. nationalism.

The attacks and the personal responses to them on that day and in the days that followed are just one aspect of 9/11—what happened after continues to weigh heavily on global politics. The official US government response to the event was broad and lasting, encompassing multiple military actions, each of which popularized a number of terms.

The “War on Terror” and the “Forever War”

Motivated by the Taliban’s harboring of Osama bin Laden and other members of the al-Qaeda terrorist network, the US invasion of Afghanistan began in 2001. Officially ending in 2021, the war became the longest in US history, often being referred to as the “forever war.”

In 2003, the administration of George W. Bush made the case for an invasion of Iraq, based on allegations involving supposed ties to al-Qaeda and development of nuclear and chemical weapons, leading to mainstream use of the term weapons of mass destruction, popularly shortened to WMDs. Though these allegations were later shown to be unfounded, the war in Iraq is closely associated with 9/11 due to the basing of the war’s justification on the threat of terrorism.

The wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan—too complex to fully summarize here—resulted in heavy casualties among both military service members and civilians, with total deaths estimated at more than 700,000. The conflicts turned many military and technical terms into household words, including insurgent, counterinsurgency, IED, PTSD, and Green Zone.

The military and intelligence response to 9/11 by the US and its allies came to be known collectively as the “War on Terror.” Often characterized as a concerted effort to eliminate the threat of global terrorism, it saw the rise, fall, and resurgence of different groups in different places, including al-Qaeda and ISIS (and, recently, the branch of ISIS known as ISIS-K).

Revelations and subsequent criticism and scrutiny of US military and intelligence use of extrajudicial detainment and interrogation methods involving torture led to broad awareness of terms like extraordinary rendition and waterboarding. Debate and criticism also centered around the indefinite detainment and alleged abuse of suspected enemy combatants at the US military facility known as Guantánamo (nicknamed Gitmo).

How do we define a terrorist? Learn about the difference between such terms as terrorist, protestor, and rioter.

The term “War on Terror” was modeled on the names given to other US government-led efforts that purportedly intended to address widespread societal problems. Like the “War on Drugs,” the “War on Terror” led to criticism about the nonspecific and unachievable nature of its mission, its endlessness, and the damage done to communities where it’s waged.

The “War on Terror” has also had other far-reaching ramifications and consequences, including its impact on the perception and treatment of Muslims in the US and internationally.

Islamophobia

A backlash against Muslim and Arab communities in the US—as well as anyone who was thought to be Muslim or Arab—began immediately after 9/11. Such bigotry is often labeled Islamophobia, a term that has gained widespread use since that time (though the term and the practice certainly existed before then). Alternative terms, such as anti-Muslim discrimination/racism/bigotry, are sometimes suggested as more precise due to implying not just fear but active discrimination.

According to recent surveys, this discrimination has continued, and cases often spike around the anniversary of 9/11. In a 2017 survey, approximately half of Muslim adults in the US reported being the target of some form of discrimination within the past year due to being Muslim. In a 2020 survey, more than half of Muslim families reported discrimination against children in school.

Muslim advocates frequently point out that discrimination against Muslims has taken many forms, including an increase in violence and hate speech targeting them; government surveillance of Muslims and mosques; profiling of Muslims by airport security; the loaded use of terms like radical Islam and Islamic terrorists; the repeated demands that Muslim communities disavow the actions of groups they have no association with; and an intentional conflation of terrorists with all of the world’s 2 billion Muslims (a view often attributed to xenophobia and racism).

Such advocates also argue that the demonization of Muslim populaces has often been reinforced by US policy, such as when George W. Bush grouped Iraq and Iran (historically enemies) under the label of Axis of Evil in 2002. A more recent example is the targeting of Muslim-majority nations in what President Donald Trump called a “Muslim ban” before and after it was enacted by his administration in 2017. Analysts have pointed to anti-Muslim sentiment and propaganda as a contributor to the spread of white supremacism and white nationalism in the US and internationally.

20 years later

For those who lived through that day and watched as the horror unfolded on the news, it can be hard to believe that 9/11 was a full two decades ago. (And a full 10 years since the 2011 raid in Pakistan in which Osama bin Laden was killed by members of the now famed US military unit known as SEAL Team Six.)

In other ways, the major changes in modern life that have occurred since then can make it feel like September 11, 2001, is a far distant time, especially for those who were born afterward. But the legacy of the event, including all the ways it has shaped our language, will likely continue to be felt for as long as we remember those whose lives were taken that day.

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Current events often bring many terms into more familiar usage. For example, do you know the difference between "sedition," "treason," "insurrection," and "coup"?

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