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Isn’t it time for ‘went missing’ to go missing?

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I thought I’d been waging a lonely war on the phrase “went missing” for most of the last decade, but now I find myself with a new comrade in arms, my old colleague and friend, network news cameraman Armando “Arnie” Cantu of Chicago. Arnie posted that he didn’t like the new ABC-TV show “The River” because “they used the dreaded expression ‘went missing.’”

I first remember hearing this phrase from British and Australian friends, and in their accent, it sounded quaint. But what do you expect? These are people who refer without blushing to pencil erasers as “rubbers.”

Increasingly, the phrase has crept into the American idiom. At first it was occasional, then common, and now ubiquitous. I hear it on TV, on radio, and in personal conversations. I see it on websites. “The three-month-old went missing” is the common construction.

This, of course, is an absurdity. A three-month-old didn’t go anywhere under its own power. A three-month-old can’t walk. So why would the phrase be used that way? Because it is a phrase meant to intentionally fog meaning, to defy precision. We can’t say for certain that someone took the three-month-old because we have no witnesses, so we try to gloss over the obvious.

“Went missing” implies that whatever it is that isn’t where it’s supposed to be somehow got to its new location under its own power. If we’re talking about a child who walked away, that could make sense. But if we’re talking about someone who against his or her will went from one place to another, it makes no sense. We have another term to describe that. It’s kidnapping. For an inanimate object, it’s just plain impossible. The butter may not be where you thought you left it, but it certainly didn’t transport itself to wherever it is.

Of course, we had a perfectly workable phrase in American English to describe this state of affairs before the British-Australian invasion of “went missing.” We used to say “the three-month-old disappeared” and everyone knew exactly what we were talking about.

But there’s a whole other dimension to the “went missing” attack. It’s just awkward. It doesn’t sound right to our ears. What was quaint coming from a Brit or an Aussie—much like their insistence that someone is “in hospital” rather than the normal American construction of “in the hospital”—just doesn’t work for us.

My wife, who has a keen ear for these things, says the phrase makes it seem the disappeared have carried themselves to a geographical place called Missing, and that if we were to go there, we could retrieve them. Would that it were so! If I could set the GPS for Missing, I could gather up a whole lot of socks I’ve lost over the years.

I want to welcome Arnie to this struggle. Our strength is in numbers. Yesterday, we were one. Today, we’re two. Tomorrow, who knows how many we’ll be. All we can say is that we won’t have gone missing.

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