The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 had a profound impact on nearly every facet of society, including the English Language. Some terms that existed before the fateful day gained a new prominence, while other terms came into being as a direct result of what took place.


University of Toronto associate professor of linguistics Rena Helms-Park outlines the ways in which 911 shaped the way we speak. The social and political changes that resulted from 911 ushered in a set of words that were already in use in the English language, but had not found a place in popular culture. The following terms ``predated 911, but are now known to the world,’’ according to Helms-Park.



  • Jihad: The Arabic word, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as ``a struggle on behalf of god,’’ was in existence long before the collapse of the World Trade Center. Since then, Helms-Park said its common interpretation as a holy war against those who don’t subscribe to the Muslim faith has become a household word.

  • Taliban: Followers of this fundamentalist Muslim movement began amassing power in Afghanistan during the 1990’s and officially formed the government in 1996, five years before 911. Helms-Park said the attacks focused the world’s attention on Afghanistan, bringing its political forces under public scrutiny and introducing the term to the public lexicon. It endures today as shorthand for the foes NATO troops are fighting in the ongoing Afghan war. The same fate has met the terms al-Qaida and Sleeper Cells, Helms-Park said. Al-Qaida is broadly defined as a militant fundamentalist group, while a sleeper cell is described as a less active offshoot of such a group.

  • Twin Towers: The two structures comprising the World Trade Center in New York City were almost certainly called the Twin Towers before they fell to the ground on 911, but Helms-Park said the term has spread through popular culture until the building is now rarely described any other way. The international response to the 911 attacks quickly familiarized English speakers with the vocabulary of warfare, Helms-Park said. Terms such as weapons of mass distraction, dirty bombs (bombs including radioactive material), extraordinary rendition (the act of sending prisoners to countries with comparatively lacks torture rules for interrogation), and waterboarding (a torture technique that simulates drowning) have all passed into common use thanks to drawn out clashes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The following are terms that have either been created or changed meaning as a direct result of 911.


  • Ground Zero: The term was originally used to describe the site of the Hiroshima bombing of 1945, Helms-Park said, adding it then came into use in the media as a general term denoting destruction. Now, she said, the phrase has just one definition — the site of the former twin towers.

  • Guantanamo Bay: Before the U.S.-led crackdown on terrorist activity, Guantanamo Bay was nothing more than a locale near Cuba, Helms-Park said. Once the American prison began housing suspected terrorists, however, the meaning changed. ``It was this image of a place where righteously angry dictums were placing these terrorists who had caused them this egregious harm. Now they’ve become a symbol, furthermore, of one wrong being used to right another wrong,’’ she said.

  • 911: They use to be three numbers North Americans could dial in case of an emergency. They then became the date of one of the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks, and finally shorthand for the event itself and all that resulted from it.

  • No-Fly List: Prior to 911, there was little need for a list of people who were not permitted to travel by air. Helms-Park said the list itself, and the term used to describe it, evolved shortly after the attacks and are likely here to stay.

  • Axis of Evil: The term, coined by former U.S. President George W. Bush to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea, was invented in order to more clearly define the ``war on terror,’’ Helms-Park said. By giving the so-called enemy a clear home, it then became easier for politicians to draw battle lines. Those lines placed the forces of good in the U.S., which also came to be described as ``God’s Country’’ in the rhetoric of the day.

The Bush administration also created two new political institutions that have entered popular speech outside of the U.S., Helms-Park said. The Department of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act were both created as a direct response to the 911 attacks.