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Sept. 11 Slang
In Times of Terror, Teens Talk the Talk
Boys Are 'Firefighter Cute,' Messy Room Is 'Ground Zero' in Sept. 11 Slang
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 19, 2002; Page A01
A mean teacher? He's "such a terrorist."
A student is disciplined? "It was total jihad."
Petty concerns? "That's so Sept. 10."
And out-of-style clothes? "Is that a burqa?"
It's just six months since Sept. 11, but that's enough time for the vocabulary of one of the country's most frightening days to become slang for teenagers of all backgrounds, comic relief in school hallways and hangouts.
"It's like, 'Your Mama, Osama,' as an insult," offered Morgan Hubbard, 17, a senior at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, where students have picked up on the phrase from an Internet game.
"If you're weird, people might call you 'Taliban' or ask if you have anthrax," said Najwa Awad, a Palestinian American student at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church. "Sept. 11 has been such a stressful thing that it's okay to joke a little bit. It's funny."
Language has always been as malleable and erratic as the day's headlines, and young people have always been some of the most innovative and playful in linking world events to their daily vernacular. But it's more than what it seems on the surface.
"When you have adolescent bravado and nothing can hurt you, underneath that is really a tremendous fear that everything can hurt you," said Alan Lipman, executive director of the Center at Georgetown for the Study of Violence. "What better way than humor to take these horrific ideas and make them go away?"
The center is doing an in-depth study of college-age and teenage students and how they got through the first such attack of their lives.
"My friends call me 'terrorist' or 'fundamentalist,' sometimes as a nickname," said Nabeel Babaa, 17, who came to this country from Kuwait when he was 3 years old and is now a senior at Sherwood High School in Olney. "It's not hurtful in the way we say it, 'cause we are kidding around with each other."
When Muslim students call themselves "Osama," Lipman said, they are trying to take back the power of being called such things, just like members of other minority groups who take negative words and use them on one another.
"They are trying to joke around, which takes the air out of it and shows how ridiculous it all is," Lipman said. "Then they feel a sense of connection over joking about it."
Only popular comics on television, radio and the Internet have as much influence on the national parlance as do brazen adolescents with their energy and uninhibited desire to craft their own language, linguistic and sociology experts said.
Teenagers breeze through such expressions as "He's as hard to find as bin Laden," or "emo" to describe people who are very emotional about Sept. 11. (It traditionally referred to brooding punk music.) Girls might say a boy is "firefighter cute" instead of the more common "hottie."
And using Sept. 11 words to crack that well-turned one-liner or pithy witticism has calmed some frazzled nerves.
"We're able to make jokes and aren't as overly sensitive as before," said Jonathan Raviv, 17, a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. "You don't want to offend anyone. But sometimes it's a little insensitive, and that's the nature of the joke."
Teachers worry that such slang could cross the line between funny and offensive.
"There was some concern about this sort of thing, and teachers are conscious of this," said Jon Virden, an English teacher at Bethesda-Chevy Chase. "It does bring up the issue of what is the lag time to laugh at something like this. But students were considerate of this."
The lag time after Sept. 11 was significant; round-the-clock news replaced all other programming, and laughter was rare. But the first "safe zone" for jokes and slang emerged -- the enemy, bin Laden and the Taliban -- and others soon followed.
"Terror humor," as it's called by those studying the phenomenon, is even going to be the subject of a special panel organized by Paul Lewis, an English professor at Boston College, for a conference of the International Society for Humor Studies this summer in Forli, Italy.
"Teenagers may be quicker to be more irreverent or raw and less likely to have their emotions repressed," he said. "There was a time right after the attacks when humor just stopped. But I thought the return of humor was very much predicted. Disasters don't take away humor."
Slang has always bubbled to the surface during crisis points. Some fades quickly, but some becomes a part of the national lexicon. And young people are comfortable being sassy sooner than adults are -- think "going postal," "the mother of all battles" or "nuke 'em."
"Teenagers' language tends to be more vivid and lively than grown-ups' language," said Geoffrey Nunberg, a senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University and author of the book "The Way We Talk Now."
"Out here you hear [teenagers] say, 'That's so Sept. 10. . . . Or, 'That's some weapons-grade salsa,' " Nunberg said.
Inside J.E.B Stuart High, one of the most ethnically diverse schools in the country, students say they do use caution when joking.
"Since we actually do have students who wear burqas, it's not like we are going to say that," said Deidre Carney, 16, who is editor of the school newspaper. "But we do make a few anthrax jokes -- like since there is so much construction going on, we might joke that there is anthrax."
Other students said it's easier to joke because everyone knows each other in a school that has no majority ethnic or racial group.
"If you do something to offend someone, then that's cold," said Ryan Hoskin, 17, a senior at Stuart. "But a lot of times we don't, and we are just looking for a way to deal with the crisis. It's like you need comedy."
Hoskin said that if a white student tells a joke involving people of Arab background, he expects to hear one back about the white students who were involved in the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado.
After all, humor should help you through. But it should also be fair, he said.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company