September 11 has been a subject much on our minds in the last month. It is not a topic we have strayed far from in the last year-it seems always to be at the periphery of just about every conversation we have had over the last twelve months-but it is a subject we identify in different ways.

Most of us refer to the day, as if on a calendar: "September Eleventh," even though it is not particularly idiomatically correct. Politicians often refer to what happened on September 11, 2001, as "the tragic events of September Eleventh," or some variation on that theme. That’s more accurate-when we talk about what happened that day, we are, after all, describing those events. But "the tragic events" phrasing has come to sound canned, and even worse, it’s passive. "Events" brings to mind a cocktail party or movie premiere. The tragedy of that day is that thousands of people died because the nation was attacked. But that’s a different semantic argument.

For the sake of conversational ease, we have reached a national understanding about how to refer to September 11. The day itself was one of the most important in this country’s history, and so we have needed to discuss it in a thousand different contexts, from dinner tables to water coolers to talk radio to bar stools. And in the process, we have decided to refer to the terrorist acts and the destruction and death they caused, simply as September 11.

The problem is that some of us (including network news anchors, the secretary of state, the president) have felt the need to recast "September Eleventh" as "Nine Eleven," or-even worse-"Nine One One." In print, we often see "9/11" instead of "September 11" or even "Sept. 11." We’ve seen "9/11" in newspaper columns, on Fourth of July banners, on new book covers, and on billboards along our highways.

Am I just parsing words? There are more important things for us to worry about right now-Iraq, double-dip recession, homeland security. Why expend energy chastising people for inept language?

The problem is not just clumsy language. It’s a lack of respect for the thousands who died that day. I was there, and I watched some of those people die. I heard the whine of a jet above me and watched it fly into a skyscraper. I watched people hurl themselves out of one of the tallest buildings in the world. I stepped over body parts on West Street as I ran from the falling south tower.

Maybe it is because I watched it all happen that I can’t refer to that day as "Nine Eleven" or "Nine One One," and that my jaw clenches when I hear these shortcuts. "Nine One One" is a nimble reference because it is the number we dial in an emergency. "Nine Eleven" sounds like "Seven Eleven," the ubiquitous convenience store. These references have the unintentional effect of cutesifying the attacks, and making it seem as if September 11 is for sale.

It is the same as shortening the titles of movie sequels (Men in Black II to MIIB, Dr. Doolittle II to DR2) or creating clever nicknames for consumer goods. (Miller Genuine Draft is MGD, McDonald’s is Mickey D’s, Howard Johnson’s is HoJo’s, Federal Express actually changed its name to FedEx.) But what is the real point of saying "Nine Eleven" or writing "9/11"? Is saving the amount of energy it takes to breathe two or three more syllables (from six in "September Eleventh" to four in "Nine Eleven" or three in "Nine One One") so important? Is saving that extra space on a page worth it?

The United States thrives on speed and efficiency. We drive-through for anything (burgers, doughnuts, banks, coffee, weddings), we eat lunch at our desks, we flock to strip malls. Our desire for strength and size and speed is often cited as the reason we were targeted for attack in the first place. One might argue referring to September 11 in a shortened form comes naturally to Americans, and so inadvertently says: You can’t change us.

But that argument does not change the way we should show respect for life, and a reverence for the darkness of that day. If history is going to refer to the attacks of September 11 by the calendar date alone, then we should do that rather than submit to our collective laziness. We should allow our children and theirs to inherit a reference to September 11 that honors those who died, instead of an expression that reflects our appetite for convenience.

Tim Townsend, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is a student at Yale Divinity School.

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Published in the 2002-09-13 issue: View Contents
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