When jargon breaks free

Kenny Louie

We’ve frequently mentioned how often journalists use the jargon of their sources, particularly police jargon, like “perp” and “high-speed pursuit.” We’ve included “shooter” in that lineup, but things change.

When a phrase that sounds like jargon becomes so common that everyone understands it, it’s no longer jargon. That’s what’s happened with the phrase “active shooter.” While some other jargony phrases related to security have entered mainstream usage, some have not.

The first news media mention of “active shooter” as it’s used today appeared in the Denver Post in April 1999, in connection with the shootings at Columbine High School, a search of the Nexis database shows.

With recent shootings at schools, experts said, police appear to be facing more threats from what they call “active shooters” who are indiscriminately killing people, and not merely a barricaded gunman who might be talked out of using a weapon. (Italics added)

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In the following four years, “active shooter” appears about 140 times in Nexis, frequently preceded by “so-called” or another introduction that indicates the term is not yet familiar to most audiences.

Sadly, that is no longer the case. “Active shooter” has appeared more than 1,000 times in Nexis in November 2015 alone. The phrase even has its own page on the Department of Homeland Security site, yet a Wikipedia entry disparages the phrase as too imprecise and “a howler.” The term first appeared in the Urban Dictionary in 2007 but hasn’t yet made it into a mainstream dictionary.

That’s sure to change, because “active shooter” can no longer be called jargon. It has a specific meaning, though: someone who is in the process of killing multiple people, or trying to kill them, as opposed to someone who has one intended target and is done. And just as police departments have learned to respond to “active shooter” situations differently from other hostage or shooting incidents, so does language have to respond.

When there’s an “active shooter,” people are often told to “shelter in place.” It’s unclear when this phrase was first used, but most references are to incidents where there’s an external hazard, like a chemical leak, that requires people to move indoors and take precautions against the outside hazard’s coming in. In other words, “sheltering in place” meant getting away from an outdoor hazard, not staying where you were. But now, many people think “shelter in place” means “stay put,” or to put things on “lockdown.”

The problem here is that “shelter in place” has a very specific meaning from the government’s point of view. The ready.gov page and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention page, as well as (heaven help us) the Wikipedia page for “shelter in place,” all use the phrase to indicate a situation in which damaging or toxic chemicals have been released. When a government agency issues a “shelter in place” warning, it means get inside and seal the doors and windows.

If enough people, though, think “shelter in place” means just stay where you are, without indicating the need to seal doors and windows, an official “shelter in place” warning won’t be effective.

Many university sites in particular urge people to “in shelter in place” when they really mean “find a safe place and stay there.” In this case, the jargon is not only misleading, but possibly dangerous. It would be better, especially in news reports, to be specific about what people should do.

Finally, there’s “homeland security.” The Oxford English Dictionarytraces its first usage to 1935, in a Japanese publication justifying the aggressive tactics that led to World War II: “It would not be essential to any Western nation’s proper homeland security to go to war.”

“Homeland” used to mean the place you considered to be your home, and was frequently used to mean the place you emigrated from as much as the place you currently lived. “Homeland security” meant simply “national security,” and the phrase appeared only a handful of times in the Nexis database before 2001.

But 9/11 changed that, and the OED now defines “homeland security” as “national security, now esp. with regard to the threat of terrorism within a country’s borders.”

This Google Ngram Viewer of the mention of “homeland security” in all its forms in books between 1935 and 2008 shows that massive spike:

“Homeland security,” then, can no longer be considered jargon, because it’s used too much. And using it incorrectly, unlike “shelter in place,” won’t have lasting consequences.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.