Typically when we think about words, we imagine them as strings of letters. However, there are rare examples of words that are strings of numbers with arguably the most famous and emotionally powerful one being 9/11.
So given that using a number as a word is rare, why did 9/11 become the noun of choice to describe this particular incident? If we look back at other significant and emotionally charged events, we find they are typically named after locations. For example, on December 7th, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy bombed the US Pacific Fleet stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, yet we don’t refer to this 7/41 but “the attack on Pearl Harbor” or simply “Pearl Harbor.” Four years later the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 80,000 people, didn’t become 6/45 but “the Hiroshima bombing” and ultimately just “Hiroshima.”
Closer to home, when Timothy McVeigh planted and detonated the bombs that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City on April 19th, 1995, this was the deadliest home-grown terrorist attack that the US had seen. Over 160 people were killed and almost 700 injured, which produced an emotional shock to the country. Yet this event became “the Oklahoma City bombing” and not 19/95.
The tendency to use geography as shorthand for traumatic events is also a clue as to why the events of September 11th may have become 9/11. Unlike all the others, there was no single location in which to drop a linguistic anchor. The attack was seen as a coordinated action on multiple targets and although the focus was on the Twin Towers of New York City, the perception was more that this was an attack on all of America and not just three places. Within hours of the planes crashing, there was already talk in the media of “an attack on America” and this was reinforced by President Bush in his address to the nation on the evening of that day:
Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts… America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world.
If you analyze the entire speech, it is only 600 words long and the words New York and Washington only appear once, which is in contrast to the word America, which occurs 6 times. The other notable scorers are evil with 4 instances and American with 3. Equal to American are freedom and nation. Significantly the most common pronoun used is our, outranking both we and I – words that are typically more frequent – and which serves to highlight that this incident had affected something we all possessed; in this case, our nation and our freedom.
The critical point is that the language being used is already positioning the terrorist activities as more than attacks on specific cities but on the entire American culture. With such rhetoric working against calling it “the New York attack” or “the Washington attack,” the date became a potential focal point.
In the months that followed, there were references to “the terrorist attacks,” “September 11th,” “the attacks on September 11th,” and “9/11.” By the end of the year, the simple 9/11 had become so engrained in the nation’s lexicon that the American Dialect Society cited it as its “Word of the Year” for 2001. The closest the country came to having a location-based word was to refer to the site where the Twin Towers fell as ground zero. This wasn’t a new coinage but originally referred to the point on the ground directly below where a bomb detonated. The Oxford English Dictionary cites its first use in 1946 in a New York Times article on the bombing of Hiroshima: “The intense heat of the blast started fires as far as 3,500 feet from ‘ground zero.’”
Since 9/11 there have been other attempts to use date-based naming of terrorist event but none has really stuck. In the UK, 7/7 was used to refer to a series of suicide attacks that took place on the London Underground on 7th July, 2005. However, this coinage seems to be more of an attempt to parallel the format of using numbers, and although 9/11 has made it into the Oxford Online Dictionary, 7/7 has not. Similarly, 9/11 has achieved dictionary status in a number of US dictionaries but not 7/7.
This mimicry extended to the 2004 Madrid train bombings on 11th March and 2008 Mumbai attacks of November 26th. Both had some support for 11/3 (or 11-M) and 26/11 but neither gained popularity. Why? Because both incidents could be tied to specific cities and referring to them as “The Madrid” or “The Mumbai” attacks was easier.
Ultimately it may be that 9/11 will stand alone as a rare word for a rare event. This is just as many might want this to be.