Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Zeroing in on Ground Zero


As I joined the nation in paying respects to all the people who died and were injured in New York, Washington, and Shanksville, PA 5 years ago, it occurred to me (again) that of all the impact this series of events had on the English language, one of the most notable was returning the appropriate meaning to the phrase ground zero.

Until that fateful day five years ago, the hair on the back of my neck would stand up when I would hear someone say, “We have to get back to ground zero and start all over again.” The phrase was fast becoming a synonym for “the beginning”.

This term, of course, originated at the Trinity Test site in Alamagordo, New Mexico in 1945 when the first nuclear device was detonated. According to the Atomic Archive, the Trinity Monument now “…includes base camp, where the scientists and support group lived; ground zero, where the bomb was placed for the explosion; and the McDonald ranch house, where the plutonium core to the bomb was assembled.”

“Ground zero” was originally the point at which an explosion occurs, hardly a place you would want to start anything at. Apparently, someone confused ground zero with zero-base budgeting.

Zero-base budgeting is an approach that does not simply include increases and decreases to last year’s budget, but requires justification for all expenditures, past and current. In other words, it begins with the assumption that next year’s budget is zero and every expenditure in a company, home, or department must be built on that.

Obviously, the two have nothing to do with each other.  Ground zero is the center of devastation, a meaning only slightly expanded from the original.

It is good to have ground zero back, though I wish the return could have been less costly.

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