How we started calling the former World Trade Center ‘ground zero’

The Commercial Appeal
This time 10 years ago, “ground zero” was used to refer to the place where a nuclear explosion occurs, or the center of intense, violent change. On Sept. 11, 2001, AP National Writer Jerry Schwartz redefined it, writing, “Emergency vehicles flooded into lower Manhattan. No one knew what happened; the towers, target of a terrorist bombing in 1993, seemed to be ground zero once again.” Schwartz, now an editor, tells The Commercial Appeal’s Richard Morgan, “This is what we do. We choose words.” Linguist Ben Zimmer suggests that “it may be time to retire ‘ground zero’ now that the site is about construction, not destruction.” (AP style, by the way, has remained “ground zero,” even now.)

Related: Joe Pompeo looks back at the stories from 9/11 and notes that journalists dropped traditional conventions, “writing from the gut”; Editorial cartoonists look back on 9/11; Anniversary brings Iraq and Afghanistan back into the newsHow America’s news habits have changed in 10 years since 9/11; Roy Peter Clark describes how storytelling charts has charted our survival from Homer through 9/11.

Best of: Columbia University’s Sree Sreenivasan is collecting coverage of the anniversary; use the hashtag #911links to highlight notable coverage.

Earlier:

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  • Anonymous

    I just asked Jerry Schwartz at AP in NYC, and par for the course, he did not answer me. I also asked the Commercial Appeal reporter you linked to  and he also did not reply. Seems people do not reply to people who live outside the USA, why is that? Or is BLOOM on some kind of permanent IGNORE button? smile

  • Anonymous

     RE: “The people at @APStylebook:twitter  may have an answer for you” — I will ask them but as in the Great Cap or LowerCase the internet Debate, they never answer me. Seems AP has BLoom on permanent ignore! Weird..

  • Anonymous

    All is forgiven, Steve. Just wanted to make sure I was getting through, one way or the other. (smile))

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    @danbloom:disqus 
    No way are you going to drag me into the debate over “internet.”

    Steve Myers
    Poynter.org

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    @danbloom:disqus It’s possible that some news orgs capitalize it. The AP Stylebook is just a guide; a reference we use to be consistent on judgment calls — so one person doesn’t do it one way and another do it another.

    Steve Myers
    Poynter.org

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    @danbloom:disqus I don’t know why it’s not supposed to be capitalized, quite frankly. The AP capitalizes some other terms, such as Great Recession. Perhaps the idea is to enforce the idea that this is an informal name, not a designated place on a map. The people at @APStylebook:twitter  may have an answer for you.

    Steve Myers
    Poynter.org

  • http://www.poynter.org Poynter

    Sorry, Dan, I’ve had my head in another story since Monday a.m. and didn’t check these out.

    Steve Myers
    Poynter.org

  • Anonymous

    i love it when bloggers totally ignore comments. and do not answer commenters’ questions. then what is a comment box for, Steve?

  • Anonymous

    OK, after nine years, we know we’re not supposed to capitalize it. Now can you define it, please?

    Can someone please explain to me why we’re not supposed to capitalize it? It does refer to a specific place, which seems an awful lot like a proper noun to me.

  • Anonymous

    Besides the Times, the AP is not in the grammarian’s roster of “most people” who correctly capitalize “Ground Zero” as a specific place in Lower Manhattan. Perhaps they would prefer to be described at “the nyt and the ap.”

    This past Monday, referring back to something he wrote in 2002, the guy who runs TestyCopyEditors.com Philipp Blanchard remined readers he doesn’t like the use of the term “Ground Zero” in uppercase or lowercase:
    “Ground zero” has a long history as a cliché but was occasionally useful in its original sense, meaning the point at which a nuclear explosion is triggered. To apply the term to the World Trade Center is to be needlessly vague about the nature of the attack. It also makes the term useless in its original sense, particularly in reference to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Ngasaki, Japan, in 1945.
    That’s interesting. Maybe the term’s use first became popular in the establishment press once it was coined as a convenient shortcut to avoid using the the “T-word,” as in “the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks,” or even to describe what occurred as “attacks” at all. If it was a strategy, it didn’t work out particularly well. Virtually everyone knows that “Ground Zero” in a story about New York City is where the terrorist attacks occurred.

  • Anonymous

    August 22, 2010
    ‘Ground Zero’ or ‘ground zero’? AP, NYT Long Ago Opted for Lower CaseFiled under: MSM Biz/Other Bias,MSM Biz/Other Ignorance,Taxes & Government — TBlumer @ 6:24 pm File this under “Fascinating Things You Learn When Researching Other Things.”The Associated Press’s infamous memo huffing and puffing about how it will henceforth describe the 13-story mosque/community center/kumbaya center that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf would like to have built on a site two blocks away from where the World Trade Center Towers once stood opened with this sentence:We should continue to avoid the phrase “ground zero mosque” or “mosque at ground zero” on all platforms.Obviously the publicly announced editorial decision was news, but how about the lack of uppercase letters in “Ground Zero”?It turns out that both the AP and the New York Times routinely do not capitalize “Ground Zero,” making them grammar outliers. Here was one grammarian’s take on the matter in 2007 (bolded in final sentence is mine):Today’s topic is capitalizing tricky nouns like Ground Zero, Internet, and Earth.
    Ground Zero
    Since we’re coming up on September 11th, I was thinking about Ground Zero, and I realized that sometimes I see the words ground zero capitalized and sometimes I don’t. Back in 2001, it seemed as if the name Ground Zero got assigned to the site of the World Trade Center in New York almost immediately. Traditionally, ground zero means the site of a nuclear explosion, and sometimes it is used to refer to the site of a more general explosion or an area where rapid change has taken place. In those general instances, ground zero would be a common noun and wouldn’t be capitalized. On the other hand, although there are a few dissenters, most notably the New York Times, most people agree that Ground Zero is the name of the specific site of the former World Trade Center, and therefore it’s a proper noun that needs to be capitalized when it is used in that way.Besides the Times, the AP is not in the grammarian’s roster of “most people” who correctly capitalize “Ground Zero” as a specific place in Lower Manhattan. Perhaps they would prefer to be described at “the nyt and the ap.”This past Monday, referring back to something he wrote in 2002, the guy who runs TestyCopyEditors.com remined readers he doesn’t like the use of the term “Ground Zero” in uppercase or lowercase:“Ground zero” has a long history as a cliché but was occasionally useful in its original sense, meaning the point at which a nuclear explosion is triggered. To apply the term to the World Trade Center is to be needlessly vague about the nature of the attack. It also makes the term useless in its original sense, particularly in reference to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Ngasaki, Japan, in 1945.That’s interesting. Maybe the term’s use first became popular in the establishment press once it was coined as a convenient shortcut to avoid using the the “T-word,” as in “the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks,” or even to describe what occurred as “attacks” at all. If it was a strategy, it didn’t work out particularly well. Virtually everyone knows that “Ground Zero” in a story about New York City is where the terrorist attacks occurred.Here is the collection of current raw headlines found at the wire service’s main site at 5:20 p.m. in a search on “Ground Zero” (not in quotes, but capitalized):I count eight headlined instances of lowercase use of Ground Zero (the AP uses sentence case for its headlines). With the exception of one link to a multimedia item (“Plans for Ground Zero”) and links to two videos (“Obama backs mosque near Ground Zero” and “Obama Supports ‘right’ for Ground Zero Mosque”), “Ground Zero” is in lowercase format at all relevant underlying AP items listed above.So determined is the AP to keep “Ground Zero” in lowercase format that it revised the words in two paragraphs it directly quoted from a Rochester New Democrat and Chronicle editorial. The relevant paragraphs originally read as follows:The controversy over building a community center and mosque near Ground Zero cuts so deeply to the core of this country’s founding that President Barack Obama was right to weigh in.
    … That’s the rub. Many Americans view Ground Zero as hallowed ground, and building a mosque nearby seems beyond insensitive.In a roundup of editorials on various topics, the AP de-capitalized both uses of the term.This after-the-fact revision of another publication’s work seems to reflect a grim resolve that goes beyond the normal policing of grammar. If so, what’s the source?You’ll have to excuse me for believing that business arrangements similar to those described here four years ago might have influenced the AP’s original decision-making process:Arab states have for decades paid substantial sums for control over content and other news-management privileges that I daresay would be refused at any price (with the mere request being treated as an earth-shaking scandal) if asked for by representatives of any Western country.Say it ain’t so, AP.Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

  • Anonymous

    Steve, to my recollection, at first, just after the event, most papers referred to it in Caps, no? as Ground Zero. so the question is also: when did it get lowercased to “ground zero”? TOm Blumer as bizzyblogs begs to differ, he feels it should be Ground Zero, forever and always. I kinda agree.

  • Anonymous

    Steve, question for you, and Tom Blumer at BizzyBlog will also want to know, should we write it as CAPS or lowercase, “ground zero” or Ground Zero? And while we’re at the Caps/LC game, what about tea party, the AP writes it as lowercase4 tea party but NYT and Dowd column report it as Tea Party. Which is it? Can you find out and report back to us here in Taiwan? Ground Zero or ground zero? ….Tea Party or tea party?…… as for internet or Internet brouhaha, that one’s still up In the Air!

  • http://www.facebook.com/georgecreedle George Creedle

    Does “Ground Zero” have any real meaning? No, in fact there were 4 targets that dreadful morning and “Ground Zero” does a disservice to those lost in the Pentagon and on Flight 93. We don’t call the Pentagon “Ground Zero”, it’s still the Pentagon. Time to start calling it the World Trade Center again.