UK paperback

Nine eleven

Branding disaster

I remember thinking about what phrase to use when referring to that day
in my book Unspeak, and I usually preferred to write “11 September
2001″ or “the attacks of 11 September 2001” and so on. I took the view
that this kind of sober precision was more appropriate for a book: that
“9/11” was the stuff of boldface newspaper headlines, and that the
omission of the year possibly implied parochialism. (Something like
“World Trade Center Attack” won’t quite do, because of course that
wasn’t the only place that was attacked.) I did, though, use “9/11”
once, in a reference to “the 9/11 hijackers”, probably out of a desire
to keep the sentence crisp. Now I check, I see the indexer made the
opposite choice: the index says “September 11th (2001): see 9/11”.
Well, you can’t fight a globe-spanning meme. ((Again with that word.))

Of course, to write “9/11” takes up fewer printed characters (and so is
particularly useful for sub-editors writing headlines), but I suspect the
success of the phrase has been largely because of its oral rather than
spatial efficiency. What’s made it stick, I would argue, is rhythm more
than anything else (it’s a ditrochee, in metrical terms, like
“topsy-turvy”). The compact and catchy rhythm of “nine-eleven” already
makes it memorable. If the attacks had occured on the 23rd of November,
I don’t think we would still hear people saying “eleven-twenty-three”,
or see “11/23” written. Too many syllables; not catchy enough. The
chance homology with the US emergency telephone number gives it an
extra frisson, too, as you observe. Also, I think we have to acknowledge the influence of 7-11 convenience stores: there’s already a two-number catchphrase ending in “eleven” embedded in the American (and British) mind.

There is of course already a tradition of remembering certain dates
primarily as calendar dates, like the Fourth of July or, in Britain,
for example, the fifth of November. But we don’t write or say those
dates as “7/4” or “5/11” (we Brits put the day before the month, which
of course makes more sense if you are including the year as well). So
why “9/11”? I think it’s a perfect storm of the above variables:
rhythm, emergency, and shopping.

  1. 1  Jasper Milvain  September 10, 2007, 2:50 pm 

    Terms for the London attacks of 2005 may give a little bit of counter-evidence for your theory about rhythm.

    “7/7” appears to have established a slight ascendancy over its fellow double-trochee “July 7” – 46,100 Google hits for “7/7 attacks” against 41,400 for “July 7 attacks”, which would fit.

    But 21/7 is way out ahead of July 21, albeit on a much smaller sample (3,100 plays 864), despite what feels to me a less attractive rhythm (two-and-three against three-and-two; I don’t have the prosodic learning to back up my feelings).

    Of course, “7” has the same number of syllables as “July”, whereas “9” is a two-syllable saving on “September”, so this may all be moot.

  2. 2  richard  September 10, 2007, 3:41 pm 

    I think the 911 emergency number connection probably explains the whole thing. Nine-eleven was already in the vocabulary in the US, and its emergency connotation could lie over the attacks, the news coverage and the supposed ongoing GWOT like a blanket.

    At least that’s how it seemed to me at the time.

  3. 3  Aenea  September 10, 2007, 8:18 pm 

    Yeah… It is pretty annoying hearing or reading ‘9/11’, especially from UK journalists. But I guess it’s pretty hard to shake off the phrase from the events because of the way everyone in America uses it and the sheer tonnage of media using it, and the amount of times Bush said it in his speeches.

    I don’t like the invasion of American language into ours, the horrible tendency to cut as many letters as possible off everything, and the slang. But it’s very pervasive. This is another facet of that.

  4. 4  Steven  September 10, 2007, 10:32 pm 

    Jasper – “July 7” isn’t a ditrochee unless you say “JOO-lie seven”.

    Anyway, does anyone really still say “7/7”? I know there was a wave of it just afterwards but I haven’t noticed it recently in British media. But it’s possible that it just passes me by.

    Google searches are a blunt instrument, of course. “7/7” may be way out ahead of “July 7” but not ahead of all the alternative ways of referring to it; or all those google hits might come from the period directly after the attacks and so not reflect settled usage.

  5. 5  richard  September 11, 2007, 2:46 am 

    the horrible tendency to cut as many letters as possible off everything

    Funny, the thing thatg bothers me is the horrible tendency to add extra syllables to perfectly good words without changing their meaning, they classic example being “burglarize” (to mean “burgle”).

  6. 6  dsquared  September 11, 2007, 9:17 am 

    “7/7” gets an unfair boost from the title of Michael Gove’s (capsule review: asinine) book, because book titles tend to get listed about a zillion times on different book catalogue websites and google will index each one as a separate ref.

    btw, “post-kinetic environment”? In the context of Iraq, it’s one in which the rubble has recently stopped bouncing.

  7. 7  Steven  September 11, 2007, 12:43 pm 

    the horrible tendency to add extra syllables to perfectly good words without changing their meaning, they classic example being “burglarize” (to mean “burgle”).
    The one that really gets my goat is “obligated”, for “obliged”.

    “7/7? gets an unfair boost from the title of Michael Gove’s (capsule review: asinine) book
    Indeed, one of the worst books I’ve reviewed in recent years.

    I do like post-kinetic environment.

  8. 8  dsquared  September 11, 2007, 2:32 pm 

    by the way, the greatest novelist of our age has also opined on this same subject, but he didn’t get the link from Safire. It is a great big lump of Mart, there’s no getting away from that.

  9. 9  Steven  September 11, 2007, 3:06 pm 

    Ah, I thank you. That might deserve a post of its own.

  10. 10  richard  September 11, 2007, 3:24 pm 

    Oh dear. Just read the Amis thing. What makes this “fitting”? So far as I am aware, no one has offered the only imaginable rationale: that these numerals, after all, are Arabic. – actually, no. We Brits mistakenly call them Arabic; they’re Indian. His more richly embroidered points are no better informed, I fear.

  11. 11  guano  September 11, 2007, 4:52 pm 

    A post-kinetic environment sounds like a place where everything has stopped, even the clocks (not a bad description when you’ve managed to create a failed state).

  12. 12  lamentreat  September 11, 2007, 9:26 pm 

    There’s something slightly un-Anglophone about using the full date-and-month. There’s no “4th July Avenue” or “5th November St.” but you’ll find that kind of naming all over the continent: e.g. the “Straße des 17. Juni,” the big avenue that runs East-West across Berlin. (Named by the West Germans, to annoy the East, after the GDR revolt of 1953.)

    Maybe that’s one reason why full dates tend to be used less frequently in a public capacity in the US and Britain: they seem to smack of popular uprisings, coups d’etat, announcements of a new constitution, the sort of capital-H History events that aren’t supposed to happen in the slow Whiggish progress of the English-speaking world.

  13. 13  Steven  September 11, 2007, 10:21 pm 

    Lamentreat: yes; it’s perhaps further notable that, as far as I can make out, the only specifically English historical date known generally by its day and month is the anniversary of a plot to blow up Parliament.

  14. 14  dsquared  September 11, 2007, 10:38 pm 

    the Glorious Twelfth is the only other one I could come up with.

  15. 15  Steven  September 12, 2007, 1:07 am 

    I suppose that is slightly different since it’s a seasonal marker rather than (AFAIK) the celebration of a particular past event. (Do people actually say “the twelfth of August”?)

  16. 16  lamentreat  September 12, 2007, 5:46 am 

    There’s the Twelfth of July in Northern Ireland. Nationalists call the day by its full name, whereas unionists tend to just say “The Twelfth,” I think.

  17. 17  John Quiggin  September 15, 2007, 5:17 am 

    There’s also S11 (coined in 2000 for an antiglobalisation protest, and later used for the 2001 attacks). This kind of anniversary was very popular with the radical left for a time, particularly I think in South America. There’s also M19 for example, though a check reveals the M was for Movement and the the date was 19 April.

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