Going missing, pussyfooting and what to do softly with a big stick


Sun, Jun 27, 2004 - Page 9

"An astrophysicist goes missing, and his children search the stars" was a headline that caught the eye of Daniel Baldwin of New York. "My intuition tells me that the term `goes missing' is grammatically incorrect," he writes. "Here is a possible explanation: It is proper to link `goes' with a gerund (as in goes fishing) but not with a participle (goes missing). Am I on the right track?"

It's a technically correct track -- I salute all gerundologists -- but headed in the wrong direction. This is a tale told by an idiom that leaves many of its users vaguely uncomfortable. "I heard it on the BBC news via NPR," Jack Wheatley writes. "Is it something the queen said and now it is OK?"

You see and hear `gone missing` all over the place, applied to people and things: An ABC newscaster in April: "Halliburton says about 30 of its employees have been killed or gone missing in Iraq." A Canadian Broadcasting Corp. newscaster: "The U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq was supposed to be a humanitarian effort ... but it seems billions of dollars may have gone missing." It is also applied to intangibles: In an article about Abu Ghraib prison, The Washington Post used the headline "Usual military checks and balances went missing."

"Go missing is inelegant and unpopular with many people," tut-tuts the BBC News Styleguide, "but its use is widespread. There are no easy synonyms. Disappear and vanish do not convince, and they suggest dematerialization, which is rare."

The term is British English, and not new. "I was obliged to return to Adrianople to get some supplies," wrote a correspondent for The Times of London in an 1877 dispatch about Turkish armies in the Balkans, "as a box which should have reached me at Tirnova had gone missing."

Why has the construction lasted so long and now blossomed? It does a semantic job that needs doing, that's why. No other term quite encapsulates "to become lost inexplicably and unexpectedly," which connotes suspicion of trouble. From the most serious loss (a person kidnapped, or a soldier unaccounted for or absent without leave) to an irritating minor loss (an object is mislaid), to go missing -- always in its past tense, went, or past participle, gone -- conveys a worried, nonspecific meaning that no other word or phrase quite does.

Is it good grammar? It may well stretch our hard-wired sense of syntax. To critics, a simple is missing would solve the problem. But because gone missing has acquired the status of an idiom, which is "an unassailable peculiarity," it is incorrect to correct it. As the fumblerule goes, "idioms is idioms." Relax and enjoy them.

One sense of to go is "to pass from one state or place to another." If you can go public, go to pieces and go bonkers, you can go with the flow and be gone missing.

Say it right

Doesn't it infuriate you when some partisan fussbudget spots a pronunciation error or misquotation by a candidate or president and goes nyah-nyah about it? In the course of myriad ad-lib remarks and off-the-cuff press conferences, isn't a politician entitled to a few humanizing mistakes? (A myriad is 10,000; OK, "a whole bunch.")

For some reason, readers have gleefully seized upon misspeakings and misquotations by our present and putative leaders and forwarded them to www.onlanguage@nytimes.com. Thanks to the eagle eyes and hypersensitive ears of these members of the Nitpickers' League (a rump group that has dissociated itself from the Nitpickers League in a fierce dispute over the apostrophe but that retains membership in the Gotcha! Gang), I pass along some half-gaffes.

President Bush, whose major contribution to the English lexicon is the deliciously doubly-negatived "misunderestimate," was called upon to pronounce the word tyranny at the recent commemoration of the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Perhaps influenced by the root word tyrant, which is pronounced TIE-rant, he pronounced tyranny TIE-ranny. The correct pronunciation, however illogical, is TIRR-anny. (Only the requirement to wear a tie in summer heat can be called "tie-ranny.")

Balancing Bush's miniblunder is the misquotation committed by his presumed Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry. "More than a century ago," the Democratic candidate told a rally in Seattle, "Teddy Roosevelt defined American leadership in foreign policy. He said America should `walk softly and carry a big stick.'" In a letter written in 1900, a year before he became president, Theodore Roosevelt wrote, "I have always been fond of the West African proverb: `Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.'' He repeated what he called this "homely old adage" in a speech as president in Chicago in 1903, and twice again in his writings after that. Every time, it was "Speak softly."

Kerry has bipartisan company in this error. Then governor Bill Clinton, campaigning for president in 1992, told a cheering audience: "Teddy Roosevelt once said that we should walk softly and carry a big stick. Today I want to talk softly and carry Ohio." Perhaps he was influenced by former President Gerald Ford's comment in 1981 about reacting to the Soviet arms buildup: "The United States should walk softly and carry a big stick."

Walking softly has never had a positive political connotation. On the contrary, it is associated with sneakiness or excessive caution: In 1893, Scribner's magazine looked suspiciously at men who "were beginning to walk pussy-footed and shy at shadows." In 1907, a special agent assigned to catch revenue-evaders in the Indian Territory became known for his "panther tread" and was given the sobriquet "Pussyfoot Johnson." The word, as a verb, has since come to mean "to evade stealthily, to walk on eggs" or even "to creep." Though it has frequently been misused in quotation, to walk softly is a political no-no. Aspiring leaders should remember to speak softly (though one's tone may be raised in reference to TIRR-anny).