Sunday, June 07, 2009

"Gone missing" gone wild

Over on ADS-L, there's a big thread rolling about the supposed current popularity of gone/went missing.

The view of one of the loudest peevologists around — and author of a dictionary specifically for dimwits (see image) — has now appeared there:
"Gone" or "went" missing is dreadfully popular today. Everyone from reporters on "CNN" to detectives (or their writers) on "Without a Trace" now prefer it.

People are so dull-witted and impressionable that, today, in this country, the popularity of "gone" or "went missing" has soared. Words like "disappeared," "vanished," "misplaced," "stolen," "lost," "deserted," "absconded" are seldom heard today because "went missing" has less meaning, or less exact meaning, than any of them, and people, especially the media, perhaps, are afraid of expressing meaning. What's more, "went missing" sounds willful or deliberate, and, indeed, sometimes that connotation is accurate, but the child who has been kidnapped is hardly agreeable to having been so.

From "Silence, Language, & Society" by Robert Hartwell Fiske
Wow, those words are dying out because of gone/went missing? Hard to believe. And amazing that Fiske made a claim that can be checked empirically. I just ran a quick QueryGoogle word count and found this:

Now, that isn't controlled for date and it doesn't filter out references to the TV show Lost (surely 600,000,000 hits), but getting about 750 million hits for the words Fiske thinks are "seldom heard" and just over 2.5 for the marauding gone/went missing doesn't look promising.

A quick and dirty Google advanced search for the missing forms limited to the last month shows 42,700 g-hits, while disappeared is at 1,160,000 for the same period and vanished at 335,000. In both cases, the ratio of gone/went missing is lower over the last month than in the general Google search. For instance, overall, disappeared is roughly 20x more common than gone/went missing and in the last month it's almost 30x more common. Gone/went missing may be in the process of going missing.

I don't have time for a closer look right now, but it would be easy enough to run this with somewhat cleaned up data from the Corpus of Contemporary American English over the last couple of decades and see how the numbers look there. I bet it's the same as we see here.

Maybe it's not "the people" who are "dull-witted and impressionable" here.


Anonymous said...

Correction, Mr. V: That dictionary was not written for dimwits. You need to interpret that genitive like the one in Webster's Dictionary or Cassell's French Dictionary.

Can't you read plain English?

Anonymous said...

Fiske is making up his facts? No, that can't be. Next thing you'll be claiming that he doesn't understand basic linguistic concepts or the history of English.

Mr. Verb said...

Man, the minions may dislike reading but they dislike Fiske more, it sounds like.

John Cowan said...

BTW, is 'minion' really a reflexive relationship? I note that Mr. Verb is listed as a minion of Mr. Verb on the sidebar....

Unknown said...

At least I identify myself. I use my name, whereas Anonymous and Mr Verb are apparently disinclined to do so. Identify yourselves, I say, or are you poltroons both?

And the book I quoted from is not The Dimwit's Dictionary (where the reason for my using "dimwit's" is nicely explained: "Whereas a witticism is a clever remark or phrase—indeed, the height of expression—a “dimwitticism” is the converse; it is a commonplace remark or phrase. Dimwitticisms are worn-out words and phrases; they are expressions that dull our reason and dim our insight, formulas that we rely on when we are too lazy to express what we think or even to discover how we feel. The more we use them, the more we conform—in thought and feeling—to everyone else who uses them."), but Silence, Language, & Society, in which I quote a few ADS members and, I dare say, make a convincing case for their being justly regarded as poltroons.

Mr. Verb said...

True -- In the quote on the sidebar, Fiske was referring, I assume, to all our readers and I think that title was playing off of that.

Mr. Verb said...

Read more carefully, Robert: Where is it stated or implied here that the quote is from the Dictionary? The source is given clearly in the quote, isn't it?

But no comments on the questions raised about your 'facts'? I'd invite you to check the Corpus, where you can search by text type, including news.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm a Poltroon! Cool. Mr. V, can I join the team and blog as 'Poltroon'.

Mr. Verb said...

Well, Poltie, how can I be sure that you dislike reading enough? Your bad punctuation in your comment DOES suggest that you'd fit in with us.

We could use more poltroonery around here, though.

By the way, why are the ADS folks poltroons? Cowardly for refusing to battle the bad usage that's destroying English or what?

Unknown said...

Don't patronize me, Mr Verb. You displayed the Dimwit's book cover only so that you and your minions could make cheap, stupid remarks about my being a dimwit. Rather puerile, don't you think. I have had books published, which so far as I can glean without knowing your true name, is more than you can claim. But perhaps I am mistaken. Maybe you've written a dozen books. What is your name?

I said "a few ADS members" are poltroons (but perhaps they all are). If you read Silence, Language, & Society you'd know exactly whom I am referring to -- even though we still would not know exactly who you are. What is your name?

Mr. Verb said...

Well, just not going to talk about the evidence for your big claim about the frequency of to go missing?

On other points, you're batting .500, I guess:

--It's true that I've never published a book, and probably never will.

--But it's not true that I put up that cover to make fun of you or encourage others to. One common feature of this blog is that we often use graphics that are not so directly connected to the post. (This is illustrated by recent images on the 'cordless mouse', 'Queenie', and 'furlough', for example.)

Oh yeah, there's been a fair bit of discussion on this blog about blogging under pseudonyms and our reasons for it.

Unknown said...

"Gone" or "went missing" is, today, increasily heard and read. More to the point, this idiom, like so many others, is -- and this was, or was meant to be, my main point -- not an exacting expression. It appeals to people who apparently cannot bother with expressing themselves carefully or clearly.

* The boy went missing Monday, the day after his birthday. USE disappeared.

* In heavily Democratic Fulton County, in downtown Atlanta, 67 memory cards from the voting machines went missing, delaying certification of the results there. USE were misplaced.

* When a $250,000 boat went missing while docked at the foot of Grand Street in Alameda, police seemed lost at sea. USE was stolen.

* A large and potentially hazardous asteroid that went missing for almost 66 years ago was re-discovered by astronomers on Wednesday morning. USE was lost.

* Fifteen people aboard the ship reportedly went missing. USE were missing.

* Many went missing after joining the militant groups, while others disappeared after being picked up by security forces for questioning. USE deserted.

* The prisoner went missing around lunchtime, but prison staff did not notice his absence until early evening. USE absconded.

* She's a grown woman, and reasonable people can and should understand that, if they are going to go missing, they are going to cause public outcry. USE disappear.

From the Dictionary of Disagreeable English by Robert Hartwell Fiske

Mr. Verb said...

But you are merely asserting that it is "increasily" used, not showing it. Demonstrating an increase in use of something requires some kind of comparison.

Anonymous said...

RHF's comment appeared over on ADS too, as Mr. V has probably seen.

As argued over there, those examples are in a number of cases more appropriate in the 'went missing' forms than in his revised versions. There's a big aspectual difference in the ship example: 'went missing' ≠ 'were missing'!

Flo said...

My lands! I love how people get so stirred up about language... language mavens are my favorite! Children do the most wonderful things with language, "getting" it before they can tie their shoes. I wonder about the psychological harm inflicted if we controlled the babbling language play of infants as much as we try with adults. At least we've moved on from forcing right-handedness! That's some progress, I suppose.

And, sacrificing robotic speech: "He should have went missing." oh how I love my dialect area!

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks, Flo. Yes, the mavenhood can be fun. Unfortunately, I fear that they don't enjoy what they do as much as we enjoy it.

The Ridger, FCD said...

And amazing that Fiske made a claim that can be checked empirically.

Even if you meant "And amazing that Fiske made a claim that can be checked empirically and didn't bother to do so" it's not really all that amazing... oh. I see what you did there!

Joe said...

Major update: Joan Hall on ADS-L noted a paper this morning that deals with the frequency of this construction. The author is Garrison Bickerstaff from the University of Georgia, and he does a more sophisticated corpus analysis than Mr V and actually finds some recent increase in the phrase up through 2007, though it's clearly not replacing other terms.

Anonymous said...

All those changes proposed by Fiske are all semantically different with his substitutions. Without context, it seems difficult to judge whether they're actually correct...

Speaking of semantic bleaching, I bet he just loves the new use of 'literally', as in "Bro, I got so wasted last night, I literally died!"

Admittedly though, it's kind of funny ;-)

Unknown said...

I know nothing of Robert Hartwell Fiske but I am going to stick up for him.

a) He uses his real name. One day Google will give us an option to filter out everyone using the handle Anonymous and we will all breath a sigh of relief that our signal to noise ratio is greatly improved.
b) "Gone" or "went missing" IS increasingly heard and read. The number of times “lost” is indexed by Google is not valuable data in disproving this. The facts are on Fiske's side.
c) Anonymous disingenuously makes Fiske's case when he says “All those changes proposed by Fiske are all semantically different with his substitutions.” News articles using "gone" or "went missing" do not contain as much information as an identical article using a meaningful word such as “stolen”. Which article is better?
d) Flo's notion that high language standards causes psychological damage is unfortunate. She can teach her children Flobonics but I won't hire them.

Anonymous said...

If there is not enough problems understanding each other anymore, why must we have to make it more difficult. Simple everyday English is needed. I always wondered where was "missing" and don't go there. Where is there? I hear these phrases more often than please and thanks or thank you.