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Near miss

Q From Zefanja Potgieter, New Zealand: I am curious about the expression near miss, often used when two aircraft avoid a mid-air collision. To me this is patently illogical, because a near miss is surely a hit, and therefore a near hit is a miss and should be used instead. Regrettably, the online Oxford English Dictionary gives a definition aligning with the common usage. My view remains that common acceptance does not change a wrong into a right. Grudgingly I have to accept this status quo but it would be interesting to find out how this term became so widely accepted.

A Your view has often been shared by others of a severely logical turn of mind:

The overuse of near ... became controversial with near miss, a nonsensical version of near thing; some of us patiently but uselessly pointed out that the writer meant near hit. Near miss has since entrenched itself as an idiom.

On Language By William Safire, The New York Times, 2 Jan. 2005.

Near miss has indeed become an idiom and idioms by definition don’t make literal sense, however infuriating that may seem. In this case, your opponents may argue that near means “close”, so near miss can be interpreted to mean an accident that has only narrowly been avoided or in which catastrophe has been barely averted. Our thoughts may at once jump to aircraft incidents when we hear it, but near miss is also used in the same sense in healthcare, firefighting and other areas where risk of accident exists.

It did appear occasionally in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, but the records show a massive upsurge from the start of the Second World War in 1939. That’s because near miss was a technical term of the military to identify a bomb or shell that missed the target but which exploded close enough to it to cause significant damage. This is a very early case:

The Admiralty stated this evening that “as a result of a near miss during an enemy bombing some days ago H.M.S. Eclipse was damaged but is now safely at her base.”

Daily Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica), 20 Apr. 1940.

After the war, the term continued in widespread use but lost the implication that damage had been caused. Its popularity may have been helped by its being shorter than near collision, a much less used but acceptable alternative that has been known since the middle of the nineteenth century:

Allusion had been made to a near collision with a vessel at Spithead, but this was the first time it had been insinuated that the captain was intoxicated at the time.

Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle (Portsmouth), 30 Oct. 1852. The captain in question was in charge of an Isle of Wight ferry.

If anyone would like an historical justification for near miss, this may suffice:

Lord Wellington happening to be with us, a shot ... carried his cocked hat completely off. Our colonel remarked to him, “That was a near miss, my Lord;” to which he replied, “Yes, and I wish you would try to stop them, for they seem determined to annoy us.”

The Autobiography of Sergeant William Lawrence, published posthumously in a version edited by George Nugent Bankes, 1886. The incident happened during the Peninsular War in 1813, though I suspect the colonel’s phrase was the invention of the editor.

Page created 15 Jan. 2011

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Last modified: 15 January 2011.