How 9/11 Got Its Name

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A few years ago, when I was reporting a story about the language people use to talk about terrorist attacks and other disasters, I asked New York Times veteran Bill Keller about “9/11.” The first published instance of the term in that newspaper, on September 12, 2001, was in the headline of a column Keller had written: “America's Emergency Line: 9/11.” Here’s what he told me at the time:

The dual meaning of 9/11 was so obvious and inevitable that I’d never presume to take credit for it. But here’s what I recall. I had just begun my Op-ed assignment and was not due to file my inaugural column for another week or two. (I was planning a wonky piece on a water dispute in Oregon. Don't ask.)

After the attack, I fetched my son Tom from school and was walking him to his mother's house. As we were walking I got a call from Gail Collins, then the editor of the opinion pages and thus my new boss. She said they were asking all the columnists to write for the next day. So my brain was already cogitating when, a little later, I overheard someone on the street remark on the 9/11 (911) coincidence.

I got home and squeezed out the riff you cited, beginning with a reference to the “aptly dated wake-up call.” Though columnists generally have the prerogative of writing their own headlines, I think I simply slugged it “9/11” and a copy editor enlarged it into “America's Emergency Line: 9/11” to fit the page configuration.

In 14 years, “9/11” has become so infused with cultural, historical, and political meaning that it’s hard to unpack. Linguistically, it takes a familiar form for referring to horrific events. But language choices aside, it’s worth noting that Keller almost immediately grasped some of the larger resonance of what 9/11 would actually mean for Americans in the months and years to come. “Perhaps our livelihood will now be touched by the constant costs of war,” he wrote in that day-after column. “[T]he magnitude of the pain inflicted on America yesterday moves us into the very exclusive club of democracies for which terrorism is not peripheral, remote or episodic, but a horrible routine.”