How We Talk About the Boston Marathon Bombing — and Why It Matters

TIME talks with linguist Sandra Silberstein about the words we use to describe the Boston Marathon bombing, and what that tells us about how we perceive the event and its aftermath.

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A Watertown police officer holds a large American flag during a candlelight vigil at Victory Park on April 20, 2013 in Watertown, Massachusetts.

President Obama chooses his words carefully — as he must — and deciding when and whether to use the word terror to describe an atrocity is not a matter to be taken lightly, as Mitt Romney discovered to his chagrin. When Obama first reacted to the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, he did not use the t-word — but less than a day later he he did, prompting observers to seize on the complicated implications of the term.

Among the people following Obama’s every syllable is linguist Sandra Silberstein, a professor of English at the University of Washington and author of War of Words: Language, Politics and 9/11. NewsFeed spoke to her about other loaded buzzwords associated with the Boston Marathon attacks—and what they tell us about how the nation is coping.

“us” versus “them”

In times of national crisis, Silberstein says, the President and the media often use language that creates an “us” and a “them” — a set of victims and a set of terrorizers, good guys and bad guys. “It seemed pretty clear how to do that after 9/11,” Silberstein says. But it’s not so clear in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers, particularly because Dzhokhar, the younger brother and only living suspect, is an American citizen.

“naturalized” et al.

In order to draw a sharper line between us and the terrorists, Silberstein observes, some people have clasped onto words that make Tsarnaev sound more foreign. Pundits talk about his “Chechnyan roots.” A Lexis news search turns up more than 300 stories that contain both his name and the word naturalized. And before the question was settled, GOP lawmakers were pushing for Tsarnaev to be treated as an enemy combatant — which is largely a legal issue but also frames the suspected bomber as more of an outsider than, say, criminal defendant.

“regular Americans”

“The question is: are they real Americans?” Silberstein posits. Or, in the words of Piers Morgan, regular Americans, as the CNN host put it when interviewing Tsarnaev’s friend Bassel Nasri on April 20:

MORGAN: Does he speak with a particularly pronounced accent? He’s been an American for the last 8-9 years.

NASRI: No, no accent at all.

MORGAN: So you say he just sounds like a regular American?

NASRI: Yes, yes, he does.

This is America struggling with whether to understand Tsarnaev’s alleged actions as those of a “home-grown terrorist” like Timothy McVeigh, Silberstein says, or a foreigner wearing an elaborate American disguise.

“kid” versus “young man”

Silberstein has noticed that when people are being interviewed about Tsarnaev—old friends or teachers and so on—they often refer to the 19-year-old as a “kid” or “boy”; the media and officials meanwhile typically speak about a “young man.” Take this excerpt from CNN Wire:

He was “a lovely, lovely kid,” said Larry Aaronson, a former teacher at the younger Tsarnaev’s high school. Aaronson described the young man as compassionate, caring, and jovial.

Young man sounds more formal, of course, and is partly just journalists taking a serious story very seriously. But Silberstein sees an element of sympathy in using language that makes him seem younger.

“resilience”

“The biggest word that is being used is resilient,” Silberstein says. “The claim is that terrorism is unsuccessful if people aren’t terrorized, so people also say things like ‘they chose the wrong city when they chose Boston.’” The same logic applies, she says, to the viral hashtag #BostonStrong and officials playing up the notion of tough, indomitable New Englanders.

“cowardly”

Reacting to the bombings early on, Obama called them a “cowardly act.” And that language is well worn territory for consolers-in-chief. Then-President Bill Clinton called both the Oklahoma City bombing and Atlanta Olympics bombing “an act of cowardice” and later called the attack on the U.S.S. Cole a “cowardly act.” Why is that the go-to word? “It’s the implicit opposite of heroism,” Silberstein says: an attempt to discourage anyone who might see braveness or boldness in the act, much like the Tsarnaevs’ uncle calling the suspects “losers.”

“self-radicalized”

U.S. officials recently said that the Tsarnaev brothers “fit the classification” of  being “self-radicalized,” and that word then cropped up in a cascade of news stories. Such language implies that the suspected bombers were not acting on instructions, that the bombing was not the work of a group like al Qaeda—and helps to reassure people that what happened is likely an isolated incident. “It has to do with whether or not you’re part of a movement,” Silberstein says, “and whether the people of Boston are now safe.”

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, NewsFeed’s weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.

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