Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Taking Issue with "Ground Zero"

In a speech on Tuesday anticipating the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that it was time to retire the name "Ground Zero" when referring to the World Trade Center site. "We will never forget the devastation of the area that came to be known as 'Ground Zero,'" Bloomberg said. "But the time has come to call those 16 acres what they are: The World Trade Center and the National September 11th Memorial and Museum." That's quite a mouthful.

I was very interested to hear Bloomberg's comments, since I had been thinking about the history of the phrase ground zero both pre- and post-9/11. In Sunday's Boston Globe, I take a look at how ground zero began its life as military jargon, referring to the locations on the ground below the aerial detonations of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. The phrase eventually accrued metaphorical meanings, as "the focal point of a change or activity" or "the starting point," before 9/11 wrenched it back into another horrifying real-life situation. Since then, though, ground zero has become acceptable once again in metaphorical use, without necessarily conjuring up the tragic images of a decade ago. (I gave a preview of the Globe column on the NPR show "Talk of the Nation.")

The argument that Bloomberg made this week, that "the time has come" to put aside ground zero for the World Trade Center now that lower Manhattan is focused on rebuilding the site, is one that I had already seen expressed online by New Yorkers. Daryl Lang, a copywriter, had said as much on his Breaking Copy blog:

It was once an apt nickname, but the site has changed and language has moved on. It's no longer an appropriate name for the World Trade Center site.
As words go, "ground zero" suggests a place of destruction. It's inappropriate now that the site is a giant construction project, with pieces almost ready to open to the public.
Anecdotally, as a resident of lower Manhattan I can tell you locals have all but stopped saying "ground zero." Tour guides who give a walking tours of the area discourage visitors from saying "ground zero." When the new office towers open, nobody is going to say, "I work at ground zero."

As someone who works in Manhattan and commutes across the Hudson from Jersey City (the PATH train connecting the two cities terminates at the World Trade Center), I can corroborate Lang's observation that locals generally don't use ground zero for the WTC site anymore. To be sure, we're hearing the phrase frequently this week in the lead-up to the tenth anniversary (and we heard plenty of references last year to the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque," though that controversy was chiefly stirred up by non-New Yorkers). At this point, ten years on, ground zero simply feels too grounded in the past.

So Mayor Bloomberg may be reflecting public sentiment in New York when he calls for an end to the use of ground zero as the anniversary closes a chapter in the life of the city. But the official name he offers in its stead, "The World Trade Center and the National September 11th Memorial and Museum," is of course far too wordy for people to use in conversation. As I told BBC News, it would be foolish to expect a mayoral edict to have anything more than a symbolic effect on actual language use. I suspect that in common usage the new office buildings will be referred to individually, starting with "1 World Trade" (the "Freedom Tower" sobriquet never struck a chord). And the memorial will likely have its own label, "the 9/11 Memorial" — though I can imagine visiting out-of-towners calling it "the Ground Zero Memorial."

As I discuss in the Globe column, the use of ground zero as a common designation for the WTC site was never entirely embraced, as manifested in stylistic arguments over whether the phrase should be capitalized as Ground Zero in its 9/11-specific meaning. Some dictionaries have recorded this usage — the first one to do so, I believe, was the 2004 edition of Encarta Webster's Dictionary of the English Language. (Though Microsoft no longer publishes Encarta dictionaries, you can find the Ground Zero definition via the Bing search engine here.) More recently, Oxford Dictionaries Online has added the capitalized Ground Zero. But other dictionary makers, such as Webster's New World, Merriam Webster's Collegiate, and American Heritage, have demurred.

Since Webster's New World is the dictionary of record for the Associated Press and the New York Times, both of those news organizations follow its lead and choose not to capitalize Ground Zero even when specifically referring to the WTC site. Baltimore Sun copy editor John McIntyre strongly disagrees with this style choice, and he revealed on his blog You Don't Say that he has instructed the news staff at the Sun to ignore the AP in this case:

In blatant defiance of an imbecilic Associated Press Stylebook rule:
Ground Zero, the site of the September 11 attacks in New York City, is capitalized.
But "ground zero," the generic term for the place directly under the detonation of a nuclear explosive, is lowercased.

While I tend to agree with this distinction, it is increasingly a moot point, as ground zero — capitalized or not — becomes less and less firmly tied to the terrible events of 9/11.

You can hear my thoughts about ground zero on NPR's "Talk of the Nation" here.

Update: The Boston Globe column is now available online.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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