October 7, 2001

The Terrorist Attack Lacks a Universal Label


The surprise attack on the U.S. fleet in 1941 is remembered by the name of the place where it happened: Pearl Harbor. The bloodiest day in all our wars is also identified by its locale: Antietam creek (though Southerners often identify that battle by the nearby town, Sharpsburg, Md). The shocking murder of a president is known by its victim: the Kennedy assassination.

But what label is applied to the horrific (more horrid than horrible, perhaps because of its less frequent use and similarity in emphasis to terrific) events of Sept. 11, 2001?

Because the calamities occurred almost simultaneously in two cities, they could not adopt the name of one locality or single structure: taken together, they are not written about in shorthand as the twin towers destruction or the bombing of the Pentagon. (And bombing is a misnomer, since no bomb was dropped.) Attack (or Assault) on America has been a frequent usage, but it seems too general, since Pearl Harbor was also an attack on the U.S.

Terrorist massacre is accurate, since massacre means ''indiscriminate killing of large numbers,'' but that phrase has not been widely adopted. The recent tragic events is euphemistic and antiseptic, and the catastrophe in New York and Washington too long.

We may settle on using the date. Just as F.D.R. vividly identified Dec. 7, 1941, as ''a date which will live in infamy,'' many journalists use ''ever since Sept. 11'' as shorthand for this new date of infamy. (A further shortening is 9/11, as in ''The New York Times 9/11 Neediest Fund,'' which is also a play on the number punched on a telephone keyboard for emergencies.) In time, however, the nation's choice of the date of Dec. 7 was replaced by the location of the disaster, as Americans ''remember Pearl Harbor.'' On that analogy, perhaps a new designation will appear for the disaster that struck an unsuspecting nation now seeking a return to normalcy.


''I was taught that normalcy was a nonword,'' writes Floyd Norris, chief financial correspondent of The New York Times, ''a poor substitute for normality invented by one of our worst presidents, and that educated people avoided the word. So I have been surprised to see it used so frequently in The Times since the Sept. 11 attack. When did President Harding win the language battle? Or were my mother and my teachers wrong all along?''

They were. Norris is a colleague whose sober market advice we all should have taken throughout the recent irrational exuberance, but he was swept up by a previous generation's Harding-hooting. Last week the economics columnist of The Washington Post, Robert J. Samuelson, used the word that is out-usaging normality 3 to 1: ''We are now slowly returning to 'normalcy,' though we don't know what that means -- and can't know.''

I know. It means normality, coined by Edgar Allan Poe in 1848. Nine years later a couple of mathematicians used an equally logical extension of normal, preferring -cy to -ity. The two forms competed, normality in the lead, until Harding made the alliterator's hall of fame in 1920 with ''not heroics but healing, not nostrums but normalcy, not revolution but restoration, not agitation but adjustment'' and (my favorite) ''not experiment but equipoise.''

When mocked by users of -ity, the president told his critics to look it up in the dictionary -- and there it was, in Merriam-Webster's. The populace was bullish on normalcy. Which leads to another miscorrection:

Endurance Contest

The Defense Department junked the name Operation Infinite Justice for its campaign against terrorism. New title: Operation Enduring Freedom. ''Enduring suggests that this is not a quick fix,'' said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. President Bush embraced the phrase in a pep talk to the C.I.A.: ''We are on a mission to make sure that freedom is enduring.''

''There is a double meaning to 'Enduring Freedom,''' objected Franz Allina of the Bronx in a letter to The Times. ''Enduring means 'tolerating' as well as 'persevering.''' Other e-mail and faxes flew in to make the same point.

Not so. ''He's taking the root meaning of the verb,'' replies Fred Mish, editor in chief of Merriam-Webster's 10th Collegiate, ''and transferring it to the participial adjective. A verb can have many meanings, but they don't all carry over to the adjective.''

The intransitive verb endure, rooted in the Latin durus, ''hard,'' has many senses: ''to last,'' or ''to remain firm under adversity,'' but a different meaning when transferring action: ''to suffer, tolerate, countenance.''

Does that difference carry over when the verb endure adds an -ing and becomes a participial adjective? No. Enduring is almost always used to mean ''lasting, permanent,'' as in ''enduring friendship''; occasionally it means ''durable,'' as in ''an enduring substance''; only once in a blue moon does it mean ''tolerating,'' as in ''enduring personal attacks, he carried on.''

''The meaning that comes to mind with most people,'' says the lexicographer Mish, ''is the meaning Rumsfeld probably meant.'' That meaning is ''lasting,'' using enduring as a modifier. The other meaning would be close to an abnormality. (Abnormalcy? No such word.)


Are we engaged in antiterrorism or counterterrorism?

Antiterrorism, according to the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, is ''defensive measures used to reduce the vulnerability of individuals and property to terrorist acts, to include limited response and containment by local military forces.''

Counterterrorism is ''offensive measures taken to prevent, deter and respond to terrorism.''

How to respond to Sept. 11? Doves prefer antiterrorism; hawks plump for counterterrorism.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company