The Word


The TSA spawns anger - and a new lexicon

By Erin McKean
November 28, 2010

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If you flew anywhere over the Thanksgiving holiday, you probably encountered the new Transportation Security Administration “enhanced screening procedures,” or at least the news stories of traveler outrage about them. Now, in addition to the no-shoes rule, the no-liquids-over-3-ounces rule, the baggage scanning, and the metal detectors, certain passengers — or, at some gates, all passengers — are now subject to a new level of screening. This involves either passing through a scanner that X-rays you through your clothes, or undergoing a hands-on body search.

The aggressively bland language used by the TSA to describe these new policies — enhanced screening procedures, advanced imaging machines, enhanced pat-down — are classic bureaucratese, in which descriptions are seemingly engineered to minimize the meaning conveyed while maximizing the number of words used. (Classic examples of bureaucratese range from the benign, such as transportation project enhancements for flowers along the freeway, to the distressingly disengaged, such as man-caused disasters for terrorism.) Enhanced screening procedures raises more questions than it answers: Enhanced by what? For whom? And what, exactly, is being screened?

Because the TSA hasn’t been communicative, it’s fallen to stressed, disoriented, and embarrassed passengers to fill in the gaps with new vocabulary — sometimes with vocabulary much blunter than the TSA might wish for.

Critical terms for the whole airport screening process aren’t new: The checkpoints have been described for some years as security theater, a term coined by security expert Bruce Schneier in 2003 to describe procedures that serve more to create a feeling of increased safety than to reduce real risk. And critics have had fun with the agency itself, coining new “bacronyms” for its initials (TSA= “Thousands Standing Around”). But the combination of new technology and new intrusions on travelers’ personal space has accelerated the process.

Some of the new terminology is purely technical: The new scanners are not the familiar metal detectors, but what the TSA calls whole-body imagers that use either millimeter-wave or backscatter X-ray technology (another unfamiliar term: Traditional X-rays go through what is being X-rayed, but backscatter X-rays reflect off the surface). The resulting images can be very revealing, as one TSA employee found out after going through the new scanner only to be taunted by co-workers about the size of his genitalia. The images have led to a number of new nicknames for the scanners, including nude-o-scope, naked scanners, strip-search machines, and porno scanners. (It probably doesn’t help that the company that makes some of these machines is named Rapiscan.)

Many passengers are declining the new scans — which itself requires explicit language to do: There have been reports of agents (transportation security officers, or TSOs) requiring the exact phrase “I opt out” before allowing passengers to avoid the scans. And using that phrase can turn you into a new noun: In my experience, if you use the magic phrase “I opt out,” TSOs start shouting, “We got an opt-out!”

Some travelers decline the backscatter machines out of concern over the additional exposure to ionizing radiation; pilots’ unions have asked the TSA to exempt them from the scans. Other passengers are simply uncomfortable with intimate images being shown to strangers. Whatever the reason, a passenger who declines the scanners must undergo an enhanced pat-down search.

These have inspired even more overheated language. The pat-downs have been dubbed gate rape, freedom pats, freedom fondles and freedom frisks, grope-a-palooza, and love pats (that last by Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri). The whole process has been called a peel and feel.

When San Diego software engineer John Tyner told a TSO “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested,” the phrase “don’t touch my junk” became an instant catchphrase, inspiring a Twitter protest hashtag (#donttouchmyjunk) and multiple T-shirts (including one from Mule Design, featuring a passenger with arms raised in the scanner position with the slogan “My Junk Is Da Bomb”). Jeffrey Goldberg, a journalist for The Atlantic magazine, wrote about his experience with the enhanced pat-down, where TSOs used the euphemisms crotchal area and resistance to describe where they were feeling and what they felt there. And more TSA bacronyms have surfaced (TSA= “Touch Sensitive Areas” and “Travelers Sexually Assaulted”).

Why the hyperbolic language? The entire airport safety procedure is opaque, for security reasons, and uncontestable: You don’t comply, you don’t fly. Rules change without notice and differ from airport to airport; as a frequent flyer, I’ve found that wearing a full skirt gets me pulled aside at San Francisco but a bored wave-through at O’Hare and Kennedy. Passengers frustrated by their powerlessness can’t voice their protests to the TSOs — who have no say in policy, anyway — without risking a missed flight or public humiliation.

But in tweets, blog posts, and angry comments on news articles, members of the flying public are making their displeasure felt. The TSA might be able to make us run its gantlet, the thinking goes, but it can’t make us use its language. The over-the-top terms reflect the public’s anger and loss of control: We may not control our belongings or our dignity, but we can certainly reclaim the way we talk about them.

Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of E-mail her at