Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"Near miss" as Orwellian euphemism

(The Word column first published in The Boston Globe, February 8, 1998)

Tom Devaney of Lynnfield, speaking for many others, writes to beg, "Please tell me: What is a near miss? A far hit?"

It's one of the most nitpicked idioms of recent decades, poor old near miss, condemned both by ordinary readers and by professional literalists like Richard Lederer, whose idea of fun is dissecting expressions like head over heels, under water, and nonstop flight to expose their logical flaws.

But for the most part, usage commentators give their blessing to near miss. Though it's a relatively new coinage -- it appeared during World War II, to describe a bombing attempt that missed its target but landed near enough to do damage -- it follows naturally from the older near thing (1751), which also means, roughly, a close call. (Near thing, though perhaps more common in Britain, is still current in the United States; just weeks ago, a Spokane reporter wrote of a moose encounter, "It was a near thing.")

Indeed, the enemies of near miss seem to be misconstruing near, reading "it was a near miss" as if it meant (nonsensically) "we nearly missed colliding." But near here doesn't mean "almost," but simply "close," as in a (figurative) close shave.

That hasn't stopped critics from campaigning against near miss. During the air controllers' strike, a claim that near miss was the industry's way of downplaying the danger of collision made the rounds, appearing in William Safire's New York Times Magazine column in 1981.

In 1987, a Globe editorial writer took the conspiracy theory further, concluding that near miss was not only bad usage but "a classic euphemism, consciously used to play a trick on the mind" -- perhaps even to divert attention from the need for air safety improvements.

The Globe's use of near collision soared that year -- partly because of the number of near misses by aircraft, and partly, no doubt, because editors and writers were striving to practice what we had preached. But near miss was never beaten back, even in stories about aviation. (Sportswriters seem never to have noticed the debate -- and anyway, near collision would rarely be an appropriate alternative for them.)

Today, near miss is used interchangeably with near collision in most reports of air traffic incidents, though the Federal Aviation Administration seems to be leaning toward near collision in its formal statements.

So unless you write for a publication that bans near miss, you can ignore the word worriers and go with it. It's good English, it's standard English, it earns its keep. And besides, if you never use an English phrase that doesn't make stone-cold literal sense, you'll be very dull company indeed.


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empty said...

The next time someone complains about "near miss", why not ask them about the adjective "approximate"? If "approximate" means "close", does that mean that an estimate that is called "very approximate" is very close to the truth or not very close to the truth? Alternatively, ask them if they are aware that "near" is originally the comparative of "nigh".

When I'm reminding myself not to worry about these things I often think of Fowler's phrase "sturdy indefensibles".