Since the Sept. 11 attacks, language has become a prime target in many news organizations.
The days since Sept. 11 have reaffirmed that in times of trouble, the language also suffers.
Some words, rushed into use without much thought, are just wrong. The widely used “terror attack” is one example. We’ve heard and read those words so often since the World Trade Center assault that they no longer sound silly. Nevertheless, the correct expression is terrorist or terrorism attack — terror is a feeling, not an action. Of course, those who are unclear about the precise use of the word can always console themselves with William Safire’s observation about usage — when enough of us are wrong, we’re right.
Another common error is using the word “Afghani” to identify the people of Afghanistan. The afghani (always lowercase) is Afghanistan’s basic monetary unit, and nothing else: The afghani steadily plummeted during years of civil war. The noun Afghan identifies the country’s people, and the adjective Afghan applies to the country’s culture, language, and so forth.
More interesting than simple mistakes, though — and more malevolent — are attempts since Sept. 11 to shape the language toward a particular end. Such efforts are nothing new, but they increase in frequency and passion in tense times. Pressure groups try to manipulate opinion by manipulating expression. They might push euphemisms, for example — which means using pretty words to cover rougher truths. Others might demand harsher language to describe hated people, things, or ideas. Still others try to confuse the issue by arguing over semantics.
We saw the semantics argument soon after the WTC attack when NATO groups sympathetic to terrorist action insisted that before we could agree to censure terrorism, we must first agree on a definition of terrorism. Those arguments were transparent political sophistry. There’s no real disagreement on what the word terrorism means. At least, dictionary committees have no trouble defining it. They agree that it means using violence or threats of violence to coerce, subjugate, or intimidate. Yet, in the days following Sept. 11, some said you couldn’t apply the word “terrorism” to the acts of people with “legitimate grievances.”
That’s an example of trying to control the issue by controlling the language.
Reuters News Service apparently gave in to such pressure in announcing it would use the word “hijackers” rather than “terrorists” to identify those who attacked the WTC. A Reuters spokesman explained that one man’s terrorist is another man’s “freedom fighter.” That bit of linguistic relativism enraged many Americans, who saw it as dangerous and dishonest pandering to anti-American interests.
The inaccuracy of the word “hijacker” seemed not to bother Reuters. Hijackers are violent blackmailers — they seize a plane or other vehicle in an effort to extort. But what happened Sept. 11 was much more than a hijacking. Yes, the terrorists took planes, but they also turned them into missiles and killed those aboard as well as those in the buildings they destroyed.
I was so astonished by this instance of political correctness run amok that I called Reuters’ Washington Bureau to confirm it. Yes, said the woman who answered, that’s the policy, but it doesn’t have to be ‘hijacker,’ just anything but ‘terrorist.’
OK, then. If anything but “terrorist,” how about murderer? That’s another word dictionary committees have no trouble defining. It means the unlawful and malicious or premeditated killing of one human being by another.
But those were early days, and the word police were only getting started. Next came nuance. An operation that was at first labeled “Infinite Justice” almost immediately became “Enduring Freedom.” Why? Because Muslim groups protested that only God could deliver “infinite” justice.
But “Enduring Freedom” proved to be irksome, too. Doesn’t that suggest, some protested, that one must endure it?
President Bush called the al Qaeda “evildoers,” and people didn’t like that, either. “Ah, geez,” said a friend. “Can’t he call them something worse? ‘Evildoers’ sounds so quaint.”
We discovered that “jihad” doesn’t mean “holy war” at all, but “holy struggle,” and that the struggle is individual and personal.
We learned that “crusade” was tainted because of the violence and plunder committed in the name of Christianity centuries ago — better not use that word again.
The government created a new Cabinet office for “Homeland Security,” and some complained that “Homeland Security” smacked of Nazi Germany rhetoric.
A letter to The Dallas Morning News said we should not use the language “suicide bomber” in the newspaper, but rather, “homicide bomber” — because “suicide” might awaken sympathy for the terrorist.
In brief, what Sept. 11 taught us about language is something we already knew — that word police are usually more interested in containing truth than they are in conveying it.
Paula LaRocque, assistant managing editor at The Dallas Morning News and the newspaper’s writing coach for 20 years, is retiring from day-to-day duties at the newspaper. She will continue to consult, however, and to write and train for The News. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.