The Linguistics of Tragedy

Will Charlie Hebdo, the magazine, reclaim its name from Charlie Hebdo, the terrorist attack?
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(Photo: Thierry Caro/Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: Thierry Caro/Wikimedia Commons)

At their core, words are codes. They aren't things, but representations of things. The word “bottle” is not a cylindrical object made of glass. It's code a speaker/writer uses to let a listener/reader know they're talking about a cylindrical object of glass. This key difference between thing and representation allows for a certain malleability.

Some words can have completely different meanings depending on the context in which they're used. (A writer doesn't use “story” the same way an architect does.) In other cases, the representation they're attached to can shift. This usually occurs over a period of time. (The term “awful” began in the 1300s as meaning something “inspiring wonder,” and now means the complete opposite.) But now and then, the shift occurs almost immediately.

“Charlie Hebdo,” for example.

Most tragedy-associated metonyms take on the location of the event as opposed to the time, possibly because our minds like to place horrific events in the past.

If you said this phrase before January 7, the person on the other side of the conversation might have thought you were referring to the satirical French periodical, if they knew it at all. Say it today, and the phrase is shorthand for the terrorist attack that took place at the magazine's headquarters.

This rapid shift is nothing new, particularly when it comes to tragic events. On December 6, 1941, “Pearl Harbor” meant the naval base located at the harbor in Honolulu; now it means the attack that took place. It makes sense that tragedies lead to sudden shifts in meaning, seeing as the key component of these events is usually the speed in which the situation changes from relative calm to chaotic violence. But just what's happening in the realm of linguistics when these changes take place?

THE KEY CONCEPT IS “metonymy.” This is the act of a word or phrase associated with a concept coming to represent the entirety of said concept. Generally, this means an extension of the original meaning. For example, “city hall” no longer means just the structure, but also the lawmakers who inhabit that structure. In the same way, “dish” started as the physical plate a meal is served on, before people started using it to represent the meal itself. In almost all cases, metonymic phrases focus on two questions: when and where?

“Times and locations are salient parts of the basic event frame,” says Dr. Eve Sweetser, a linguistics professor at University of California-Berkeley. “Hence labels can refer to the salient events that took place on that date and in that location.”

In other words, we remember an event taking place during a time or place, so it makes sense why we choose to refer to an event with those factors. Where it gets strange is when an event occurs that overwhelms the meaning of the original location name. Few use “Watergate” anymore to mean the actual hotel; in the cases of “Columbine” or “Sandy Hook,” the terms have almost lost their previous meaning.

As you can tell, most tragedy-associated metonyms take on the location of the event as opposed to the time, possibly because our minds like to place horrific events in the past. We want to forget troubling events, so we reserve date metonyms for things like weddings, anniversaries, or celebratory events like the Fourth of July (celebratory, at least, if you're on the right side of history). But there is one huge exception: “9/11.”

THERE ARE PLENTY OF theories why this phrase focuses on a date rather than location. The most obvious is that, rather than the attack taking place at a single location, it was spread across four different places. Using a metonym like “New York City” or “Manhattan” rings hollow as to the geography. A date doesn't have to deal with that issue.

Another has to do with a kind of poetics, specifically the date's similarity to America's emergency telephone number. 9-1-1 is a phone number everyone knows growing up; its mention is associated with fear and disaster. If you're dialing 9-1-1, something's wrong. Using it in conjunction with another terrible event, then, isn't a huge leap. If the events took place on March 11 (like the public information phone number 3-1-1), perhaps the metonym wouldn't be “3/11,” since it isn't similarly visceral. (It's worth noting that the Madrid train bombings, which took place on March 11, are known in Spain as “11-M” due to the country's use of the date-before-month method of date formatting.)

(This connection between “9/11” and 9-1-1 is made evident in the story of its initial usage. Last year at Medium, Adrienne LaFrance tracked the first use of the metonym to the New York Times' Bill Keller, who exploited the similarities for a column title. Not to say it wouldn't have surfaced without Keller's help. “The dual meaning of 9/11 was so obvious and inevitable that I’d never presume to take credit for it,” Keller told LaFrance.)

There's also the way “9/11” works visually. A pair of “one” digits, positioned side-by-side, look an awful lot like the two towers destroyed during that attack. It's no surprise that most of the “9/11 collectibles” on eBay utilize this similarity in their design. Branding-wise, there's power in the aesthetics of 9/11.

And there's the fact that, intended or not, a date lends itself a certain ominous quality. In a 2010 paper on the linguistics of 9/11, co-authors Adan Martin and Juani Guerra explored the metonym. “The use of such a tag as 9/11 makes us think about a possible return to a same date, an idea is reinforced by the lexical items which collocate with 9/11,” they write. Using the tag not only locked in a yearly memorial, but allowed the threat of a terrorist attack to become a question of when, not necessarily where.

We want to forget troubling events, so we reserve date metonyms for things like weddings, anniversaries, or celebratory events like the Fourth of July. But there is one huge exception: "9/11."

“9/11” also allowed the subjects of the attack to expand. In the weeks and months after, rhetoric associated with the attacks focused less on the fact that they took place in a specific location (New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania), and more that they took place in “America.” This was due somewhat to the dictated aim of the attackers—al-Qaeda made countless public mentions of attacking “America” as opposed to specific cities—but mostly because the country's leaders used the murky location as galvanizing terminology. Rather than calling on citizens to support a specific locale away from them (putting them on the outside), by expanding the attack's location, politicians made every citizen feel as if they were “under attack.” The end result was a nationalism (albeit short-lived and with troubling consequences) that has rarely been seen in the country.

All of which is why, 13 years later, the phrase “9/11” is the only newly created phrase to remain in use since the attack. (Adios “Ground Zero” and “weapons of mass destruction.”) Linguistically, it's a metonymic beast that shows no sign of discontinuation.

SO, WHAT DOES ALL this mean for “Charlie Hebdo?” There hasn't been a whole lot of literature in the realm of “tragedy linguistics," but we can extrapolate.

Currently, it's one of the top news stories, so the use of a shortcut is possible. Rather than typing out or saying the entire event that took place (at the very least, the accurate description is “Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack”), people are removing the extensions because it's possible. Metonymy, after all, is all about shortcuts. This will definitely continue, then, until news of the attack is shifted into the tertiary because of other stories. The week after the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway, all you needed to do was say the word “Oslo,” and people knew what you were talking about. Now, you need that explanatory addenda to get the other person on the same page. Tragedy plus time may not always equal comedy, but sometimes it equals a return to linguistic normalcy.

At the same time, the city Oslo was founded in 1000 C.E. and has a rich enough history that no single event will ever monopolize—or metonymize, if you want—the name. “Charlie Hebdo,” meanwhile, has been around since 1970, and wasn't exactly a household name to begin with. So, the question is, will “Charlie Hebdo” ever be known for something bigger? Its latest cover, once again, depicts a cartoon version of the prophet Muhammed, this time with the words "All is forgiven" written above. Perhaps this is the first bold move toward reasserting itself strongly enough to reclaim its name from the terror-inspired metonym. That might be the truest form of defiance.

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