It seems like only yesterday our world was a different place. Many things have changed since Sept. 11: Flag sales are up and our civil liberties are now considered privileges rather than constitutional rights. But what I think has been overlooked are the subtle changes that have taken place in proper American English since the World Trade Center became only a commemorative photo essay in the pages of Time Magazine.
Language is an important part of every society today, no matter what form it takes. It shapes the way we think about everything and also becomes an integral part of our being. It is how we communicate with one another, how we display emotion and also how we acquire knowledge.
Languages, in both their oral and written forms, have changed frequently over time, and ours is no exception.
Over a period in time, Parisians stopped pronouncing half of every word they speak and Australians decided to drop a few vowels out of their stereotypical greeting leaving only a g’day behind. The word nice used to mean stupid – I bet we can all follow how that word changed meaning over time.
And I remember when it was considered bad form to start a sentence with the word “and.”
Language changes are totally normal as they are usually the linguistic equivalent of social change. And syntax reconstruction, changes in pronunciations, as well as the omission of certain words or the changing of a word’s meaning are slow processes that are usually unnoted in the present time, and only noticed in retrospect.
But since Sept. 11, I have noticed a drastic change in the language of the mass media and the government of the United States. I find its swift metamorphosis and racist implications very alarming.
There was a time in this country when the word allegation, and it’s conjugated counterpoints, alleged and allegedly, were in common use in the media. Being that anyone in the United States who was arrested of a crime, whether or not they were caught with their pants down or holding a bag with a money symbol on it, was presumed innocent until they were found guilty in a court of law, this word became very important to journalists trying to report a crime without condemning the suspect.
The crime described was then allegedly committed by the person in question, because a jury of his or her peers had not yet proved it as truth. This word and its implications have gone the way of the dodo since 9/11. It was absent in the media recently when Mohamed Abdirahman Kariye, the imam at Islamic Center of Portland, was arrested in the Portland Airport for allegedly having TNT residue in his suitcase – which of course, we now know, he did not.
The word, suspicious, now most commonly used in the phrase suspicious persons, has also changed meaning as of late. Let’s use it in a sentence to explain my point: When Homeland Security Adviser Tom Ridge is sitting in his office spinning his color wheel and asks the American public to be on the lookout for “suspicious persons,” he is asking you to keep an eye out for Muslim Americans, or really any foreign or native peoples, that you might feel could allegedly be Islamic. So a word that used to encompass all peoples who could be accused of guilt has shriveled, by the decision of only a few, to define a religious – and by way of that, also an ethnic – minority. Suspicious is also now synonymous with terror suspect.
Patriot used to mean “one who loves their country and protects its interests.” In our history, this broad definition has included activists, revolutionaries, and people who have progressed and protected the interests of the people of the United States. It now means “shut up.” Human rights violations used to mean “the abuse of people by a government or army.” This has now become a phrase for every day of the week. Weapons of mass destruction is a complicated and overused phrase that refers to the weapons of anyone the Bush administration does not like.
This is only an introductory glossary to the language changes of the post-Sept. 11 climate. For a full-color copy* signed by President Bush himself, send $5 to:
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Washington, D.C. 20500
*You may also address any language-change complaints to the same address.