Finding words for September’s tragedy
Linguist notes ingenuity, vagueness of President’s ‘9/11’ colloquialisms

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs



Linguist Robin Lakoff has studied the making of American mythology through a close analysis of the popular language surrounding major news events.
Peg Skorpinski photo

06 March 2002 | “September 11th” and “9/11” have become the words commonly used to refer to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But it remains to be seen what becomes the shorthand — like “D Day” or “Pearl Harbor” — by which those events eventually are known, says Berkeley linguist Robin Lakoff.

Professor Lakoff, who studies the role of language in American culture, finds the vagueness of the current terms intriguing.

“What’s interesting is that 9/11 is a set of numbers, a date, and doesn’t refer directly to what happened. It’s a removal from actual description, a way of distancing ourselves from the actual events,” says the author of six books, including “The Language War” (UC Press, 2000).

Lakoff has studied the making of American mythology in some of the most scandalous and renowned news events of recent history, the stories that have “acquired legs,” she says. Her textbook examples include the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings, and the controversial suggestion that “Ebonics” be considered a bona fide language.

These stories are important, she says, because they represent a body of shared meaning, or culture, and often represent problems facing American society.

New ‘day of infamy’
The political rhetoric and mythology related to Sept. 11 demonstrates how informal American society has become since World War II, she believes.

“If you compare the way President Bush has characterized September 11th with the way President Roosevelt described the attack on Pearl Harbor, you’ll find a very big difference,” Lakoff says. “Roosevelt said Pearl Harbor would live in ‘infamy,’ a word today’s Americans may not understand.

“FDR was reaching up, higher, to a more formal sphere of rhetoric, to win hearts and minds,” she says. “But that strategy no longer works for us, because we are much more informal. Our current political rhetoric goes downward; we touch hearts and minds not through the grand figures of classical rhetoric, but through the skillful appropriation of colloquialisms and slang.”

The “cowboy-isms” in the President’s speeches — terms like “smoke ‘em out,” “hunt ‘em down,” or “get ‘em dead or alive” — conjure up images of the quintessential American, Lakoff says. “It’s intentional. Cowboy talk is the language of the take-charge American. In our mythology, cowboys are the people who know how to get the job done. They’re plain-spoken, they act, they don’t waffle.”

Like Lakoff, other language experts have noted Lone Star State colloquialisms emerging from the White House. Some have published guides to Bush’s more colorful expressions: “tighter than bark on a tree” (meaning someone who is not very generous), or “as welcome as a skunk at a lawn party.”

Heroic mantle
“Let’s roll” is another colloquialism that Bush has adopted, as a way of assuming a “heroic mantle,” Lakoff says. Those were the words that Todd Beamer, a passenger on hijacked Flight 93, uttered over his cell phone shortly before the United Airlines craft crashed in western Pennsylvania Sept. 11.

Bush first used the phrase at the end of his September 20 address. “His choice [of words] was particularly striking because it was so clearly identified with one person who used them in the act of heroism,” Lakoff says. “He was trying to incorporate himself into Todd Beamer and hold onto a piece of Todd Beamer’s heroism.

Lakoff calls Bush’s appropriation of Beamer’s words “ingenious."

“In all kinds of ways, Bush delivered a magnificent speech on Sept. 20. People were speculating that this would be the speech of his life, that it would make or break him, because he wasn’t known for being a very good speaker up until then.
“Everybody was in disarray and confusion, they didn’t know what it meant to be an American anymore, and they needed a really strong, clarifying statement. By ending his speech with ‘let’s roll,’” she says, “he told us all, ‘we are Americans and we are in this together and we’ll do what is necessary to fight terrorism.’”

But the colloquialism lost its potency as Bush tried to capitalize on it in again in his State of the Union address and at the Winter Olympics, Lakoff says; the emergency of 9/11 had long since passed.

Breeziness, informality
Lakoff cautions that much of the President’s rhetoric is oversimplified.

“It has created semantic fuzz,” she says. “It suggests by its very breeziness and informality that our problems have easy solutions.” The reality is that terrorism is not a simple good guy-bad guy scenario; we can’t ‘smoke ‘em out,’ and we probably will never bring Osama bin Laden to justice.”

If the President’s rhetoric holds any lesson, she says, it is that people need to be alert to the nuances and subtleties of the language used by world leaders.

“The simplicity of the message — us vs. them, good vs. evil — oversimplifies the situation,” Lakoff says. “So if we’re asked to give up a few civil liberties here and there, we feel we should not complain, because this is war and we are courageous.”


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