THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
The Word

Now you see it...

Should ‘go missing’ just vanish?

By Jan Freeman
June 21, 2009
  • Email|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

In the 10 years since I first fielded readers’ complaints about the phrase go missing, the British import has continued to spread in American English. It has also continued to irk some people: Grammar Girl, for instance, called it her audience’s peeve of the year for 2008. She added this advice to journalists: “Went missing actually isn’t wrong, but it annoys a lot of Americans, so you might want to say {hellip} disappeared every once in a while.”

And so we do; in fact, we say it a lot. When Air France’s flight 447 went down in the Atlantic a few weeks ago, disappeared was by far the most popular verb to describe its fate, with vanished a not-very-close second and went missing a distant third. That choice might have been influenced by the common phrase “disappeared from the radar,” but the rankings are the same in non-radar contexts. Mr. Verb did a quick tally a couple of weeks ago, and reported the results on his website: “Overall, disappeared is roughly 20x more common than gone/went missing, and in the last month it’s almost 30x more common.”

Of course, go missing is still young, compared to its rival verbs. It has only achieved its modest popularity in the past few decades; it could conceivably keep gaining on the competition.

But I’m guessing it will occupy its own, semi-separate niche in the medium-to-long run. From the beginning, I’ve liked the no-nonsense simplicity of go missing; by comparison, disappear and vanish both seem more strange and spooky, probably because they can be used to describe abstractions and immaterial phenomena - things that don’t just get lost but actually cease to exist. The age of chivalry can disappear, a rainbow can vanish, but neither is said to go missing; something that has gone missing is usually still presumed to exist, somewhere.

I asked Lynne Murphy, an American-born linguist and blogger who teaches in England, for her impressions of how go missing is used in its native land. She too believes that using go missing “makes an event seem less mysterious than ‘disappear’ or ‘vanish,’ which somehow have a whiff of the supernatural about them.”

Even Ben Yagoda, who denounced Americans’ fondness for British terms in a 2004 essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, gave go missing a free pass. It was more down-to-earth, he found, than disappear or its “slightly more melodramatic counterpart, ‘vanish.’ ”

Go missing is also a bit more aged than we thought. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is 1944, but Google Books has examples nearly a century older. Go missing was formal enough for The Scottish Jurist, an 1859 summary of court cases, which reported that one piece of a legal puzzle could not be found: “A great number of the steps of process, on some of which it might have been written, had gone missing.” And it was casual enough for dialogue in “The Ticket-Leave Man,” a play from 1863: “If bills will go missing - it ain’t me that steals ‘em - Tiger does that.”

Americans were not missing from the fray in the mid-19th century; when the Brits were trying out go missing, we had their own twist on the verb, the phrase turned up missing. It appears as early as 1853, in “A Stray Yankee in Texas,” by Samuel Adams Hammett: “Their wealth often walked off upon four feet, and when most needed, was very apt to turn up missing.” And an 1861 dispatch from an expedition to the Dakota territory reported that “quite a number of horses, mules, and oxen turned up missing.”

If you think turn up can only mean “reappear,” this sounds like a contradiction, or at best a jocular turn of phrase. But it has been in wide use, meaning simply “turn out to be missing,” from the late 19th century. Just last week, the Kansas City Star reported that diamond jewelry had “turned up missing” after a Lindsay Lohan photo shoot. We probably can’t sneer at go missing while turn up missing is part of the American lexicon.

The last defense of go missing’s opponents is the literal objection, articulated a couple of years ago by Doug Fisher at his blog, Common Sense Journalism. “To me at least, [go missing] seems to imply volition,” said Fisher. “When you say, for instance, ‘she went to the store’ or ‘she’s gone to the store,’ there’s an implication that it was done willingly.”

But this is a different sense of go than the one in go missing, which is “to change state.” You don’t travel anywhere, willingly or not, when you go bald, go gray, or go bankrupt. Plants go to seed, wine goes sour, meat goes bad, faces go white, horses go off their feed, people go nuts. You don’t have to like go missing, but if you’re looking for a linguistic reason to disapprove of it, you’re probably searching in vain.

E-mail Jan Freeman at mailtheword@gmail.com. For past columns, go to www.boston.com/ideas.