On September 11 itself, the attacks needed no label. “The Towers,” “the planes”—all sufficed. Soon enough, that changed. The next morning in the New York Times, an op-ed piece by Bill Keller was titled“America’s Emergency Line: 9/11.” (When so many of us were thinking of firemen and cops, those three digits were doubly resonant.) The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever, on September 13, made it explicit: “Consider the date, 9/11, which reads as 9-1-1, which is keypad-speak for: Oh God no, help, please. Perhaps the day could simply be called Nine One One.”
In the early weeks of coverage, the term appeared more often in quotes than in newspapers’ own prose. That first month in the Times, the shorthand “September 11” showed up just once, and “9/11” did not appear again. The more demotic New York Post published a quote on September 18 that may mark the moment when “9/11” began to slip into the vernacular: A rabbi said, “No one in our city remains untouched. September 11—9/11—has marked us forever.” On October 5, it showed up, straightforwardly as we now use it, in a Chicago Tribune headline. William Safire, in the Times, pointed out that “December 7,” that previous date of infamy, had gradually become known as simply “Pearl Harbor Day,” and wondered whether that might happen here.
It didn’t. Since then, the unornamented date has become the default name for a horrifying event. The London attacks of 2005 became 7/7. The Madrid attacks of 2004 became 3/11 (in the U.S., anyway; over there, they’re 11/3, or 11 de marzo, or 11-M). It is a denatured, bloodless reference, which may be the point. It’s also ugly on the page: more license plate than word, a little too glib and telegraphic for something so monstrous. No matter. The hive mind made its decision, and to whine about that is itself glib and inappropriate.