Wednesday Words: The Language of 9/11, Adult Domains and More

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David McGlynn

Welcome to NewsFeed’s weekly highlight of our vocabulary — including useful, new, hilarious and surprising words (as well as some that are just fun to roll off the old tongue).

9/11 101: ground zero

Ground zero will be written and read countless times as the country nears the 10th anniversary of 9/11. In an interview with NPR, linguist Ben Zimmer outlines the history of the term. It entered the mainstream lexicon courtesy of physicists, he says, after the bombs were dropped from “air zero” in Japan during WWII. Then the term broadened, from referring to the spot where a nuclear bomb hit to the center of activity or as the equivalent of “square one.” Zimmer recommends retiring the term as a reference to the location of the attacks, as a way of looking forward.

Term transitions: Ground zero isn’t the only phrase that shed it’s dreadful connotations to take on more general—and more innocuous—meanings. Basket case, for example, is used today to express that someone is an emotional wreck or even to a country that is a financial wreck. But it was first used to refer to soldiers who had lost all four limbs during World War I and would, theoretically, have to be carried off the field in a basket. (At the time, the military denied such cases existed.)

(MORE: Beyond 9/11: TIME’s Portraits of Resilience)

New suffix: .xxx

This week .xxx started its journey to join the ranks of .org and .com, and the domain will have two main customers: adult sites who want a sexy suffix and companies who want to make sure no one ever registers their names with an .xxx at the end—like, say, Bed, Bath and Beyond. The company administering the domain, ICM Registry, is billing it as a means of finding and avoiding salacious sites.

Tech talk: The label won’t go live until 2012. Right now is a “sunrise period,” a time when people with a good reason (like a trademark) to want a name registered can do so before the general public gets a chance. This helps prevent “cybersquatting,” a practice of making money off of buying and selling website addresses. In early Internet days, this was done by snatching them up and ransoming them to companies. Today there are many tactics, like “typosquatting,” registering very similar addresses and profiting off the traffic meant for others.

(MORE: The .XXX Porn Domains Have Landed)

Disturbing designation: snowdrop

In an interview this week about his new book, author A.D. Miller explains why he called the work Snowdrops, Russian slang for a body that is buried in the winter snow and emerges when it thaws. “The image seemed to capture the harshness of life in Russia,” he said, “but also potentially to be a metaphor for other ideas, too, such as the way experiences that you try to repress can catch up with you.” And it’s a good term to have in your pocket in case you ever need to impersonate an Arctic mafioso.

Let it snow: According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, “snow gathering” was 19th-century slang for stealing clean clothes off of hedges (because the clothes would be fresh and white). A “snow top” is a white-haired person (and, incidentally, a good way to refer to Santa Claus). A “snow bird” can be a tourist, or homeless person, who travels south for the winter. And in New Zealand, ladies apparently used to shout “Snowing down south!” to warn a fellow woman that her petticoat was showing. Indeed!

Katy Steinmetz is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @KatySteinmetz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.