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The Word

Ground Zero

Are these words tied to 9/11 forever?

By Ben Zimmer
September 11, 2011

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At 1:25 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, ABC News correspondent John Miller was on the air, telling the news anchor Peter Jennings stories from police officers who were on the scene that morning when the World Trade Center was attacked. Miller told of an officer, blinded by dust and soot, being led by a “kid” to nearby St. Peter’s Church, where he washed his eyes out with holy water.

“These are the kind of human descriptions of the stories of people who were there at ground zero when the first building fell,” Miller said.

It’s no surprise that Miller, himself a former New York City deputy police commissioner, would have called the site of the devastation ground zero. After all, when the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, the location of the blast was commonly called ground zero as well. By that evening’s news broadcasts, the term was swiftly circulating as a way to refer to the area where disaster struck. For many, the generic description ground zero had become the name of a specific place, Ground Zero.

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, a numerical sequence turned into a powerfully evocative emblem. Ground zero, first used at the close of World War II for the detonation sites of atomic bombs, had become diluted to mean the focal point of any rapid change, or even just a synonym for “square one.” Writing in this space shortly after 9/11, Jan Freeman speculated that “the rubble of a real ground zero in New York may help to clarify that distinction for a generation or so.”

Now, a decade later, ground zero still carries a resonance of the day the Twin Towers fell, and yet the old metaphorical meanings have crept back, too. Ground zero first showed up in print in a June 1946 report on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it took another 20 years before the phrase veered away from Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation. In a March 1966 article about Swinging London, the Daily Mail of Charleston, W. Va., reported that “Ground Zero for the Mod Explosion is Carnaby Street.” Thereafter, many places were referred to as ground zero for different activities, even if they weren’t literally or figuratively explosive.

Immediately post-9/11, using ground zero so cavalierly may have felt inappropriate or even offensive. That is clearly no longer the case, however. Before the Iowa straw poll for Republican presidential candidates, no one complained when Michele Bachmann said, “This is ground zero in Ames, Iowa, for making Barack Obama a one-term president.” Newspapers supply even more frivolous examples. The Philadelphia Inquirer informs us that “South Street’s German resto-bar, Brauhaus Schmitz” is “ground zero for Oktoberfest,” while the San Antonio Express calls the city of Austin “ground zero for orangebloods” (rabid fans of the Texas Longhorns).

Metaphorical ground zeroes are still most often associated with tumultuous events, sometimes natural ones. Recently, Time ran a photo essay on “Japan’s Ground Zero”--not about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but about the Fukushima prefecture, which suffered the brunt of the earthquake and tsunami in May. And after Hurricane Irene, an official from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency told the Globe that the rivers in the Springfield, Mass., area were “ground zero for the flooding.”

Just as ground zero lost its initial association with atomic blasts, the phrase is no longer inextricably linked to 9/11. In lower Manhattan, despite the hubbub last year over plans for the so-called Ground Zero Mosque (which would actually be built a couple of blocks away), ground zero feels less and less applicable to the bustling WTC construction site. The copywriter Daryl Lang observed on his Breaking Copy blog that “when the new office towers open, nobody is going to say, ‘I work at ground zero.’” And New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg suggested in a speech on Tuesday that it may be time to retire ground zero as the identifier for the area.

One sign that the name never completely took hold is the reluctance to accept the capitalized version, Ground Zero, as the site’s conventional designation. Style gurus at both the Associated Press and The New York Times insist that it should be kept lower-cased (though Baltimore Sun copy editor John McIntyre calls such a rule “imbecilic”).

And while some dictionaries, such as those from Oxford and Encarta, now record the capitalized form, others are more circumspect. The fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, coming out in November, will not list a capitalized 9/11-specific meaning, though it will include the more general sense, “the site of a terrorist bombing or other violent act of destruction.” Executive editor Steve Kleinedler told me that lexicographers at American Heritage “adopted a wait-and-see approach,” and then opted for a definition indicating how ground zero could also be applied to other terrorist attacks, such as the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Even given the weighty legacy of 9/11, our words have a way of slipping loose and finding new ground in which to take root.

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com and the former On Language columnist for The New York Times Magazine.