Word watcher charts marathon bombing's description as 'surreal'

Blood on feet
A man's bloodstained feet extend from an ambulance outside a medical tent near the finish line of the Boston Marathon after two bombs exploded there on April 15, 2013.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

As people in Boston and beyond struggled to make sense of the marathon bombings last month, the news media churned out reports that started to follow a pattern.

Ben Zimmer, the language columnist for The Boston Globe, spent time reflecting on the bombings and their impact on people's reactions. He noted that the words used to describe the bombings mirrored a trend that followed 9/11: The word "surreal" popped up in both instances.

Writing in The Globe, Zimmer offered a theory about why this was so: People use the word "when our mundane day-to-day experiences of life seem to move into some other dimension that our rational minds cannot account for. As with 9/11, it is not surprising to see 'surreal' paired with 'like a movie': Cinematic images of terror, disaster, and panic may be our closest touchstones."

With the rise of social media, it did not take long for "surreal" to spike in usage after the bombings. Along with "surreal," other superlatives are often employed in the coverage of breaking news events.

Zimmer joins The Daily Circuit to talk about the use of superlatives and other language trends.


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CBS: In tragedies, words hold comfort, power

'Horrific' and 'surreal': The words we use to bear witness
"The recent events in Boston and West, Texas, were different in many ways but people used the same language to describe them, particularly the words horrific and surreal. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has these thoughts on how we talk about horror." (NPR)

Responding First
"Once again, with the marathon bombings in Boston, we heard a term that didn't exist when I was growing up: first responder. The blogosphere hums with disdain for coinages of the last 50 years, so I'd like to take a moment, in the midst of our grief and bewilderment at the bombings themselves, to celebrate this one." (Lucy Ferriss, in The Chronicle of Higher Education)

'Bro' bombers: how we pop the balloon of terror with words
"Today The New Republic's Noreen Malone brings up an interesting point that falls somewhere within that heady Venn diagram of news and semantics (i.e., relevant to our interests). One week ago, after the FBI released photos of suspected Boston bombers Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev in their ball caps looking like your average college students, one of the most frequent colloquial descriptions of them was the word bros. That spawned a surge of related bro-words: brofiling, for instance, 'Brosama Bin Laden,' and bro-ish, Malone writes." (The Atlantic)

Let's see you write a paragraph worse than this
"In lieu of yesterday's game, whether you're son is going to graduate college is between he and his coach. The thing is, is that the point is mute, your not going to effect the outcome. I found you're invite to drink expresso fairly unique, and would be happy to come if you could borrow myself some money. The reason is because I'm broke, and I hope you don't mind the ask. So, were on for coffee, and its your treat. Supposebly." (MPR)

A way with words: How do we explain our world?
"We check in with The Daily Circuit linguists for the latest trends in language. What words have become especially popular given the cultural climate? Why is 'austere' one of the most-searched words on the web? What are some holes in our language and how can we fill them?" (MPR)