A Name for It

9-11 memorial

National September 11 Memorial, by PWP Landscape Architecture

About 13,000 young people who were born on September 11, 2001, are turning 16 on Monday. That makes most of them now eligible to get their drivers’ licenses. And also to admonish the rest of us: “It’s 9/11 day. Remember to do one good deed.”

Like the rest of us, the new generation of young people keeps the designation 9/11 for the day that the United States suffered its greatest terrorist attack. And the memory of that day may be helped, at least a little, by its distinctive designation.

Just as the hurricanes drenching Texas and now Florida have been given names, the better to talk about them and distinguish them one from another, so has the assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon 16 years ago. But there is an obvious difference. Storm names are determined in advance in an orderly manner by the World Meteorological Organization, with the aim of avoiding confusion, since there are dozens of storms following similar paths.

It was a practice inspired by George R. Stewart’s 1941 novel, Storm, telling of a devastating California storm. Stewart’s main character thinks of the storm as a kind of living being whom he names Maria. That’s why the weather services first used only female names when they began to imitate the practice in 1953. Ever since 1978, both genders have had equal opportunity in the lists of names. Hence Harvey was followed by Irma, and she in turn by Jose.

With the attacks of September 11, 2001, the naming situation was totally different. It was a unique situation, thankfully unlike any other before or since. And no committee or organization tried to give it an official name.

So it just happened that a consensus emerged among those who responded to the events of that day and those who wrote or talked about them that it would be … well, the events of September 11, gradually and often abbreviated as 9/11. The coincidence between 9/11 and the telephone emergency number 911 could hardly be overlooked, but there was also a difference, 9/11 being pronounced “nine eleven” and 911 “nine one one.”

It should be noted that in the English language, 9/11 is a rare type of designation for a day. We don’t call our Independence Day 7/4. By all rights a more conventional term would likely be the one that everyone would use. But perhaps we persist in using this unusual term because it names an event equally and thankfully unusual.

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