Episode 90: January 4, 2008
Everyone else seems to be announcing a word of the year, so I've decided to name a pet peeve of the year.
After a non-scientific study of the messages I get from listeners, I've determined the pet peeve of 2007 is the phrase went missing. Boy, do a lot of you hate that phrase! Before I talk about went missing, here's a fun* review of some of the other words of the year.
In a spurt of silliness, Merriam-Webster named w00t the Word of the Year. Yes, that's w00t spelled w-0-0-t, with zeros where the o's should be, and it's an interjection expressing joy making it similar to the word yay. According to Merriam-Webster, w00t “first became popular in competitive online gaming forums as part of what is known as l33t ("leet," or "elite") speak—an esoteric computer hacker language in which numbers and symbols are put together to look like letters.” It's an odd choice for word of the year, but I confess I did shout, “W00t,” when I finished the final version of my first Grammar Girl book a couple of weeks ago, and my editor was polite enough to “W00t,” back at me.
In other word-of-the-year news, Webster's Word of the Year winner was grass station, which they define as a pun on the word gas station. According to Webster's, “grass station refers to a theoretical fill-up spot in the not-too-distant future. It reflects America's growing love affair with hybrid cars and vegetable-based fuels, including ethanol and biomass fuels—some of which are actually distilled from plain old grass.”
Finally, the new Oxford American Dictionary named locavore as Word of the Year. Back in July, Chef Mark from the Remarkable Palate podcast called out locavore as his favorite neologism for a Grammar Girl podcast that mentioned new words. Locavores are people who eat only food that is grown or produced within 100 miles of their home.
Oxford named the verb tase as a runner up for the award, and I did a show about verbifying taser into tase in September, so I'm feeling very in tune with the Oxford American Dictionary this week.
And now, on to the Grammar Girl Pet Peeve of 2007: went missing.
Here's an example of one of the many messages I received last year:
I want to complain about the use of poor grammar in our news media, particularly the news people's use of the term went missing for disappeared. Where in the world went missing came from, who knows, but they use it all the time, and it just grates on my nerves. So if you have any pull with these people, Mignon, please do something. Thank you!
Well, I don't know if I have much pull with the news media, but if any reporters are listening, here's the deal: Went missing actually isn't wrong, but it annoys a lot of Americans, so you might want to say missing or disappeared every once in a while.
The reason went missing sounds strange to Americans is that it's a British idiom (1, 2). I've seen sources placing the first use of went missing as far back as 1944 (3), but my version of the Oxford English Dictionary places the first use in a 1958 book by British writer Norman Franks (4). The OED places gone missing in the same category as the phrase go native, which is used to describe a turn to or relapse into savagery or heathenism. I've also heard the term go native used to describe the transition a newcomer to Washington D.C. undergoes as he or she accepts the government bureaucracy, which I suppose could be considered turning to savagery or heathenism.
One thing I realized while researching went missing and its partner go missing, is that go is quite a versatile verb. The OED includes nearly 100 definitions, most of which have multiple sub-definitions. A couple of other idioms that use the word go include go begging to mean “unfilled” or “available,” as in Jobs went begging; and go over to mean “to gain acceptance,” as in They hope the play goes over well.
It's possible that this British term has gained footing in the American media because of the high-profile disappearance of British girl Madeline McCann in May 2007. The McCann story received wall-to-wall news coverage for weeks, and this is just speculation, but it may be that the constant reporting by British journalists about how the girl “went missing” subtly influenced American reporters to adopt the term.