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What If They Gave a Day, and Nobody Came?
by Lionel E. Deimel


I was in the kitchen fixing lunch today and listening, or perhaps half listening, to the living-room television, which was tuned to CNN. Although I only paid attention to the television for just a few minutes, I heard much to think about regarding to the way we use and misuse our native tongue.

CNN and other news organizations have lately been investigating what U.S. agencies knew or should have known about the terrorists who attacked our country on September 11, 2001. The first piece I heard was a report of this sort. Some correspondent asserted that, had something happened—I did not catch the details of what that something was—“nine-eleven might have beeCalendarn averted.” A few minutes later, someone (else?) made a similar statement, ending with “nine-eleven might have been avoided.”

My first thought was that “nine-eleven,” usually written “9/11,” has become the default name for the terrorist atrocities committed on September 11, 2001. In the immediate aftermath of those attacks, it was unclear what we were going to call the attacks (see “What’s in a Name?”), but the contest for a permanent name seems to be 9/11’s to lose. No better term is on the horizon, though 9/11 does have its drawbacks. In speech, it can be confused with the number 1000 - 89 or with the emergency telephone number, though the latter ambiguity may be one of its subtle charms. In writing, 9/11 can be misinterpreted as nine-elevenths or (more likely) some September 11 other than that of the year 2001. On the other hand, no one has trouble with the name “Fourth of July,” so why not 9/11? The CNN usage, of course, suggests something of a response to that question. In fact, 9/11 refers to both a date and the events of that date. This is what makes the notion of averting or avoiding 9/11 strange. Possibly, the attacks could have been avoided, but the date itself was, well, inevitable. Moreover, had the events been avoided, “9/11” would cease to designate anything other than a date. Put another way, avoiding 9/11 would have made “avoiding 9/11” meaningless.

Following the CNN report was a local commercial in which a food store owner explained that he is “Pittsburgh’s purveyor of fine foods.” He further told how he has gained a reputation “as the best food store in Pittsburgh.” (That quotation may not be exact.) It was ironic to hear this commercial juxtaposed to all the 9/11 talk. It struck me that, in both cases, subject and predicate, possibly in the interest of brevity, were not being carefully matched. Just as 9/11 (the day) could hardly have been averted—except possibly by the end of the world—John McGinnis (the grocer) could hardly be the best food store in Pittsburgh. On the other hand, the events of 9/11 could perhaps have been averted, and Mr. McGinnis’s establishment conceivably could be the best food store in Pittsburgh. Moreover, writers for television could be a lot more careful.

— LED, 2/25/2002

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