Ground zero

GROUND ZERO: “the point on the earth’s surface directly above or below an exploding nuclear bomb.” —New Oxford American Dictionary

There are many things that puzzle my puny brain. Why use corn sweetener instead of sugar? How can manufacturing and shipping trinkets from China be more cost-effective than making them in Nebraska? Why are French actresses so unreasonably sexy when their male co-stars look like New York cab drivers during a transit strike? (Worse, why do American women find these schlubs alluring?) But by far the most taxing question is: why do people use words and phrases incorrectly when correct terms are in common circulation?

Take ground zero. Everyone knows what it means. You do not want to be at ground zero. Ever. So why “start at ground zero,” as so many managers, project directors, etc., insist? While not strictly wrong, it smacks of imprecision. If you start with a blank slate, you start from nothing, zero or square one. These are terms that everyone knows and uses, and yet somewhere along the way, somebody somewhere confused the unconfusing ground zero with these common, simple words.

Is it a poetic reference to the site of the World Trade Center attack, an event that forced us to rethink our national priorities? After all, you say, that’s an apt metaphor for any business strategy on which my team labors for months, only to be knocked down by shifting requirements or corporate restructuring, thus forcing us to rewrite the whole plan. Don’t make me laugh. Some office drone obviously got the big numbers in square one and ground zero mixed up and shot his mouth off without thinking. And for this we went to college.

How about this? You go back to ground zero. I’ll just hang here by this red button. Now we’re good.

— Otto E. Mezzo

2 thoughts on “Ground zero”

  1. I wanted to see if you had done something on numerical expressions.

    Ground zero might fall into a broader category of problems that could be called something like “misused figures” (though the ground zero confusion might be related to the non-numerical term ground level).

    A personal favourite by way of example:

    About a policy change at work, I once asked “When did we go back to doing things this way?” “Oh,” she said, “The Board met the other day and totally changed direction 365 degrees.”

    I kind of liked the idea that there might have been a direction change that netted to only 5 degrees. Then I thought that she might have meant 360, and was suggesting a sort of “policy pirouette” had taken place (a term that might well be needed. It could describe executive actions that look impressive but which actually amount to no change). Of course she was looking for 180.

    But I like that 360 idea…..


    360, 365, 180.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *