Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Words from a "Surreal" Week in Boston

What the city of Boston experienced last week was described again and again as surreal. It was the only word that seemed capable of encompassing the week's unfolding events, from Monday's deadly explosions at the Boston Marathon finish line to Friday's lockdown of the city as SWAT teams zeroed in on the remaining suspect of the bombing.

My column in Sunday's Boston Globe Ideas section focuses on the word surreal and why it always seems to crop up at times like these. An excerpt:

The word owes its creation to Surrealism, the early 20th-century art movement that blurred the line between dreams and reality in order to achieve a kind of "super" reality. But "surreal" is no longer merely an aesthetic: Now, we turn to it most often when our mundane day-to-day experiences of life seem to move into some other dimension that our rational minds cannot account for. As with 9/11, it is not surprising to see "surreal" paired with "like a movie": Cinematic images of terror, disaster, and panic may be our closest touchstones.

In such unspeakable moments, words fail. This was true for those at the scene of the Marathon, but also for many who watched from afar as photos and videos began flooding social media and the enormity of the crisis began to take shape. When there are no words, "surreal" ends up working as a proxy for more complex, inchoate emotions that are difficult to verbalize. "Surreal" says: I saw it, but I don’t understand it. And with an event as terrible as this one, that understanding may never fully come.

(Read the rest here, and check out James Harbeck's thoughts on surreal here.)

Though words might have felt insufficient in describing the tragedy, there were, in fact, a number of notable words that emerged from Boston's surreal week. Here is a selection of words that spread via traditional print and broadcast media, or more frequently, the noisy channels of social media.

marabomber: Soon after the bombings took place, some looked for a label for the then-unnamed perpetrator. On the American Dialect Society mailing list, Victor Steinbok noted the coinage of the blend marabomber (marathon + bomber), reminiscent of Unabomber. He also noted that a more innocuous incident at the 1996 Boston Marathon had previously spawned the blend. A runner that year put his pre-race clothing in two self-addressed stamped envelopes, which he passed off to a couple of bystanders to mail for him. One of them thought it might be a letter bomb and alerted the authorities, who called in a bomb squad to check it out. At the time, Sports Illustrated ran an item on this under the headline, "The Marabomber."

bag men: The New York Post took some well-deserved criticism for its front-page story Thursday morning, in which a photo of two backpack-wearing bystanders at the marathon was accompanied by the screaming headline, "BAG MEN: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon." Investigators were indeed attempting to identify the two men, but they were never considered suspects. Reuters media analyst Jack Shafer wrote that it was "incendiary" to call the men in the photo bag men, "slang for criminals who perform deliveries and run errands for other criminals." The Oxford English Dictionary records this slang meaning of bag man (also spelled bagman) from 1928.

brofiling: Later on Thursday, the FBI revealed photos and surveillance videos of its two actual suspects, a couple of light-skinned young men in baseball caps. Since CNN and others had mistakenly reported that a "dark-skinned male" had been taken into custody, rueful jokes quickly circulated on Twitter about the racial profiling that would now be faced by "bros," a cultural stereotype of young white frat-boy types. Not surprisingly, such jokes spread with the hashtag #brofiling, just the latest in what Arnold Zwicky calls "bromanteaus." For more brocabulary, see Erin McKean's 2011 Boston Globe column, "The secret language of bros."

shelter in place: On Friday morning, Bostonians awoke to find their city under lockdown, after a firefight left one suspect dead and another on the run. Lockdown originally referred to confining prisoners to their cells during a prison riot, but it has been extended (since 1984, says the OED), to non-prison situations where people's access is restricted as a security measure. While the press used lockdown (see James Harbeck for more on the evocative term), the official term for the emergency action was shelter in place.

Shelter in place has been used for a few decades in emergency management, both as a noun phrase for the procedure itself and as a verb phrase for what people are advised to do when the order is made: stay indoors until all is clear. (It's somewhat reminiscent of aging in place, a term for growing older while continuing to live in one's own residence.) A terrorist attack or the release of hazardous chemicals could necessitate a shelter in place order, but the term evidently originated from Cold War scenarios of nuclear fallout. The earliest example I've found is from a Feb. 1976 congressional hearing on civil defense: "One plan looked at shelter in place for a decade and then abandoned it in favor of massive evacuation," explained George R. Rodericks, director of Washington D.C.'s Office of Emergency Preparedness.

Chechen: Friday morning was also when the identities of the two suspects were revealed: Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, brothers of Chechen descent who immigrated to the United States in 2002. Chechen means that their family is part of the diaspora from Chechnya in the North Caucasus, though they themselves were not born there. The president of Chechnya was quick to distance his country from the Tsarnaevs. Meanwhile, the Ambassador of the Czech Republic wanted to make sure that Americans didn't mistake Chechen for Czech. The Onion's satirical take had an unfortunate ring of truth: "Study: Majority Of Americans Not Informed Enough To Stereotype Chechens."

flashbang: The manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev came to an end Friday evening when he was discovered hiding in a boat kept in the backyard of a house in Watertown. After the owner of the boat alerted the police, Tsarnaev's location was verified by a helicopter with a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera, which uses thermal imaging. The police then surrounded the boat and deployed stun grenades known as flashbangs, which are designed to disorient a target without inflicting injury. Gizmodo has more on the technology behind the capture.

Mirandize: After Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's arrest, U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz announced that he had not been read his Miranda rights, including the right to an attorney and the right to remain silent. The government invoked the "public safety exception," which allows the Miranda warning to be delayed while the FBI interrogates the suspect to ensure that there is no further danger posed to public safety. In other words, Tsarnaev was not immediately Mirandized. The OED notes that this verb was used as early as 1971, just five years after the Supreme Court opinion in Miranda v. Arizona led to the enforcement of the Miranda rule for informing criminal suspects of their rights.

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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.