When the Port Authority announced that what had been portentously known as the Freedom Tower would instead be simply called “One World Trade Center,” it was the end of a linguistic era. Then-governor Pataki’s symbolically charged name for the 1,776-foot-tall fortified skyscraper was being replaced by a simple address, however poignant an echo of what had stood there before.
The word “freedom” is a complicated one, with a history in the language that stretches back to the time of Old English. Coincidentally, the week before, the Oxford English Dictionary published an entry for the noun that was revised for the first time since its original publication in 1900. It divides the word into 26 distinct senses, not including compounds and derivatives. “Freedom fries” didn’t make the cut.
Freedom is a good thing. No one would go on record claiming to be opposed to freedom, just as no one would claim to be opposed to peace. So the pretense that by screaming “freedom” loudly enough one could bulldoze through any obstacle was an especially irritating one. It’s hard to believe that anyone — regardless of the strength of their patriotism, or their disapproval of the diplomatic position of France regarding the invasion of Iraq — seriously subscribed to the notion that the name of the quintessentially American French fries should be changed to “freedom fries,” even if the House of Representatives did just this in its cafeterias in 2003, right around the time when the Freedom Tower also got its name. But then again, in 1917, jingoistically anti-German Americans similarly campaigned for sauerkraut to be renamed “liberty cabbage.”
“Freedom” seems to be losing its cachet as a cheap rhetorical trick. In George W. Bush’s inaugural address in 2005, he used the word 27 times; it was his most frequent content word. But Barack Obama used it only three times in his inaugural; it came in behind “nation,” “America,” “people,” “work,” and “generation.” The superpatriotic uses still linger — Kid Rock’s current National Guard–recruitment-commercial song, “Warrior,” has the chorus “Freedom ain’t so free / When you breathe red, white, and blue / I’m giving all of myself / How ’bout you?” — but by now this jingoistic use seems like a throwback.
Which is why the Freedom Tower lost its name; as it was signing up tenants (the first commercial one is a big Chinese company), those echoes became a marketing liability. “Frankly, we’ve gotten a very interested and warm reception” for the name change, Port Authority chairman Anthony Coscia told reporters this week. Unsurprisingly, Pataki took umbrage, declaring that “the Freedom Tower is not simply another piece of real estate and not just a name for marketing purposes.” But as one source close to the deal told this magazine, “The way the site was politicized for so many years I think has left a bad taste in the mouths of the people who are actually trying to get things done there.” That will allow people to go to work in an office building, instead of in a statement.