Three months on from the disaster, it is becoming apparent that our esteemed betters in the mainstream media are going to have their way, and the terrorist attacks on the London transport system on 7th July are to be referred to as “7/7”. At some stage it has been deemed fitting and appropriate to borrow from the American media the dubious shorthand it used to refer to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in September 2001, and apply it to our own tragedy four years later. It is a measure of the desperate obsequiousness of some sections of the British media that they have insisted on applying this format even though, for one thing, the abbreviation of dates into number form, so pervasive in everyday American colloquial usage, has little precedent in our spoken English. And secondly, the reduction of “July Seventh” into the numerical shorthand does not syllabically abbreviate the term at all.
The original reduction of the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks into a catchy shorthand served a political purpose. For in dispensing with the need to include a complete date – still less a proper noun – when referring to the attacks, the American corporate media produced the effect of conferring upon that particular mass murder a status that transcends any other. Indeed much intellectual discourse as come to talk of “pre-9/11” and “post-9/11” events, as though they were BC and AD, as though the events of that day did indeed provide a pivot for our conception of recent history. While such an approach has obvious benefits for interest groups wishing to whip up militarist hysteria, there is also the more subtle effect of implying a status of lesser importance for other terrorist atrocities, those which can only be referred to by recourse to traditional dates and descriptions – references that will exceed four syllables. Thus an event which should have opened the eyes of Americans to the horror of ideologically-motivated indiscriminate murder, has been used instead to further marginalise the memory of the victims of terrorist aggression, from Santiago to Jakarta. Even in the pantheon of grief, where the virtues of empathy and understanding so often flourish, the US mainstream media has sought to outdo the rest, and distance America from comparison to – and commonality of interest with – the other nations of the world.
That newspaper editors in the UK have decided to appropriate this format speaks volumes about the political and social culture we live in. I have yet to encounter anyone outside the media who actually uses the term “Seven – Seven”; rationality and intelligence, as well as linguistic habit (discussed above) would seem to preclude it. Nevertheless it appears that the media are determined to persevere with it. Doubtless for many reporters and journalists it is a simple matter of laziness, and they haven’t thought the matter through for themselves. But where outright stupidity is not the issue, a certain intellectual crassness is probably to blame – a crassness which considers that it is appropriate for Britain, a country which has suffered many terrorist attacks in the past, to suddenly adopt the same apocalyptic language as our American cousins, whose political culture and history is so different from ours. Furthermore, the transcending of linguistic differences, and for that matter the convention that an abbreviation ought to actually have an abbreviating effect, are matters of secondary importance; indeed the overriding of accepted terms of reference provides a microcosm of the cultural switch that is being imposed upon us. So for now, at least, something truly stupid and crass has entered the vocabulary of even our most respectable mainstream press, television and radio. Were this to be allowed to remain, it would not bode well for the future of intelligent discourse in the British media, and the populist gibberish of American mainstream news coverage and political commentary could become a daily reality in the United Kingdom. If any imitating is to be done, it is surely they who should be imitating us, not we them.