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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Times of Terror, Teens Talk the Talk

WASHINGTON -- Their bedrooms are "ground zero." Translation? A total mess. A mean teacher? He's "such a terrorist." A student is disciplined? "It was total jihad." Petty concerns? "That's so Sept. 10." And out-of-style clothes? "Is that a burqa?"

It's just six months since Sept. 11, but that's enough time for the vocabulary of one of the country's most frightening days to become slang for teenagers of all backgrounds, comic relief in school hallways and hangouts.

"It's like 'Osama Yo Mama' as an insult," offered Morgan Hubbard, 17, a senior at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, Maryland, where students have picked up on the phrase from an Internet game.

"If you're weird, people might call you 'Taliban' or ask if you have anthrax," said Najwa Awad, a Palestinian American student at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County, Maryland.

Language has always been as malleable and erratic as the day's headlines, and young people have always been some of the most innovative and playful in linking world events to their daily vernacular. But it's more than what it seems on the surface.

"When you have adolescent bravado and nothing can hurt you, underneath that is really a tremendous fear that everything can hurt you," said Alan Lipman, executive director of the Center at Georgetown for the Study of Violence. "What better way than humor to take these horrific ideas and make them go away?"

The center is doing an in-depth study of college-age and teenage students and how they got through the first such attack of their lives.

"My friends call me 'terrorist' or 'fundamentalist,' sometimes as a nickname," said Nabeel Babaa, 17, who came to the United States from Kuwait when he was 3 years old and is now a senior at Sherwood High School in Olney, Maryland. "It's not hurtful in the way we say it ... we are kidding around with each other."

When Muslim students call themselves "Osama," Lipman said, they are trying to take back the power of being called such things, just like members of other minority groups who take negative words and use them on one another.

Only popular comics on television, radio and the Internet have as much influence on the national parlance as do brazen adolescents with their energy and uninhibited desire to craft their own language, linguistic and sociology experts said.

Teenagers breeze through such expressions as "He's as hard to find as bin Laden," or "emo" to describe people who are very emotional about Sept. 11. Girls might say a boy is "firefighter cute" instead of the more common "hottie."

And using Sept. 11 words to crack that well-turned one-liner or pithy witticism has calmed some frazzled nerves. Teachers worry that such slang could cross the line between funny and offensive.

"There was some concern about this sort of thing, and teachers are conscious of this," said Jon Virden, an English teacher at Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Maryland. "It does bring up the issue of what is the lag time to laugh ... but students were considerate of this."

"Terror humor," as it's called by those studying the phenomenon, is even going to be the subject of a special panel organized by Paul Lewis, an English professor at Boston College, for a conference of the International Society for Humor Studies this summer in Forli, Italy.

"Teenagers may be quicker to be more irreverent or raw and less likely to have their emotions repressed," he said.