Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Words of the Year 2009: staycation and go missing

My thanks to everyone who has engaged in the nominations and debate on Words of the Year for 2009. Here's a reminder of the rules (I'm a Libran with Virgo rising/ascendant, I've gotta have rules):
We have (at least) two Words of the Year here at SbaCL, and nominations are open for both categories as of now:
1. Best AmE to BrE import
2. Best BrE to AmE import
The word doesn’t have to have been imported into the other dialect in 2009, but it should have come into its own in some way in the (popular culture of the) other dialect this year. I retain the editor's privilege of giving other random awards on a whim.
And now, without further ado...

The 2009 SbaCL Best American English to British Import is...


Yes, the recession has hit the UK and it's become both stylish and necessary to forgo a (BrE) holiday/(AmE) vacation in Thailand or Morocco and instead brave the British weather in a seaside town or scenic valley. But wait...what's that you say? That's not what it originally meant in American English? All the better for proclaiming it the best AmE to BrE import of the year!

The word is eminently American--the British do not use vacation to refer to something that one can 'go on'. (They do use it to refer to the time in which, say, university is out of session--but not for the non-work activities that one does while free from one's term-time duties. That's your holiday.) And while more British alternatives, like home-iday and holistay have been proposed, they have not caught on:

Google hits
on .uk sites

Word Spy's early AmE citations have it squarely as staying in your own home during one's time off--making a vacation/holiday of being at home (which may include doing the local touristy things or indulging oneself in other ways). WordNik's more current quotations show its use as being more 'vacationing/holidaying close to home'. In BrE it generally has the latter sense, and one's staycation might not be all that close to home, as long as it's in the UK. (Then again, many US states take longer to cross than the longest journeys in the UK, so 'close' is always relative...)

Why did it catch on? First, there was definitely a need for it. The British discuss holidays/vacations a lot more than Americans do, since they generally get a longer vacation/holiday period from their employment. And many of them use that time to go abroad. Abroad is pretty close, for one thing, and many people are keen to get some sun. (They ought to be. Did you know that "in the UK, the prevalence of vitamin D deficiency in all adults is around 14.5%, and may be more than 30% in those over 65 years old, and as high as 94% in otherwise healthy south Asian adults"?) Second, the euro strengthened while the pound weakened and other financial calamities. Third, the papers still had their travel sections and supplements to fill and, boy, do they like portmanteau words (or blends, as we linguists tend to call them).

But all of this doesn't tell us why the AmE one was preferred over the BrE equivalents. This may be a matter of taste, but I would say that it's just because staycation sounds better. Unlike home(l)iday, there's no unclarity about how to spell or pronounce it. Unlike holistay it doesn't sound like it should have TM after it. And unlike Broliday, you can immediately recogni{s/z}e the ingredients in the blend.

Thanks to Emmet for nominating this, and to the commentators on the nomination, who helped to seal its fate as AmE-to-BrE Word of the Year.

So, on to the BrE-to-AmE WotY. It's not a particularly new borrowing, but it generated a fair amount of discussion this year. Ladies and germs, I give you:

go missing

And now I brace myself for the complaints that "It's not a word!" Well, that depends on how you define word, and "Lexical Item of the Year" just doesn't have the same ring to it. And I make up the rules, so why am I having to answer to you, Little Commenter Voice in My Head?

At the Dictionary Society of North America conference this year, Garrison Bickerstaff of the University of Georgia gave a paper on the rise of go missing and its various forms (went, gone, going, etc.). His research, based on newpaper data from the past 10 years, shows that the form has steadily gained momentum in US newspapers. Meanwhile, it's also increased in frequency in UK newspapers--indicating that it is less and less seen as 'too informal' for the news. Here are some numbers from the first and last year in Bickerstaff's study. Each represents the number of forms of went missing (the most common form) per ten million words of his corpus:


So, while it is still not used in AmE at anything like the rate at which it's used in BrE, we can see that it has made definite inroads.

Bickerstaff was not the only academic type to ruminate on go missing this year--it was the subject of quite a bit of discussion on the American Dialect Society e-mail list. Another academic discussion was by Anya Luscombe of the Netherlands, who gave a paper on BBC Style at the Poetics and Linguistics Association conference [warning: link is a pdf file]. Luscombe discusses four 'pet hates' of BBC writers, one of which is 'Americanisms' and another is go missing. While her work clearly isn't about the phrase in AmE, it's interesting to see how attitudes to it have changed in the BBC style guides. Luscombe quotes these editions:
Prior to 1992: no mention
1992: ‘“Gone missing” was originally Army slang. It now has wider use, and has become journalese.’
2000: ‘People do not “go missing”. They are missing or have been missing since.’
2003: ‘Go missing is inelegant and unpopular with many people, but its use is widespread. There are no easy synonyms. Disappear and vanish do not convince and they suggest dematerialisation, which is rare.’
And going further, a current BBC webpage says:
Perhaps it's to time to admit that further resistance against "go missing" is in vain. The problem comes when you are writing about the event in the past. " Mr Childers disappeared last Tuesday" is as improbable as "Mr Childers went missing" is ugly. ".....was last seen" is an acceptable alternative.

What I love about the importing of go missing into AmE is that American peevologists don't like it in spite of the fact that it is British! While Americans often suffer a verbal inferiority complex when they encounter a British English (standard or not), grumpy Americans are standing their ground on this one. Perhaps they don't realize that this phrase comes from the Mother Country?

Went missing was Grammar Girl's pet peeve of the year 2008. Another example comes from Peevologist-at-Large Robert Hartwell Fiske's Silence, language and society (reproduced by the eminently reasonable Mr Verb on his blog in June):
"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.

Now, that kind of language grumpiness is just precious (and published regularly in Mr Fiske's publication, the Vocabula Review)--language is changing because people are afraid of meaning anything. My goodness, I do hope Mr Fiske is wearing his tin foil hat because the media are probably right now trying to suck meaning directly from his brain so that they can club baby seals with it.

Go missing
is beautifully meaningful--giving us some nuances not available in other words. It's not the same as vanish or disappear--and that's what makes it so useful. When something is said to go missing, it makes it seem like a less mysterious event than 'disappearing' or 'vanishing' which have a whiff of the supernatural about them. One can use it as a way to avoid blame--including self-blame: My phone went missing rather than I lost my phone. If a person 'goes missing', then there's a sense that although we don't know where they are, they do.

For more on this, I point you to another language commentator who picked up on this phrase this year, Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe (and not just because she quotes me!). It was her research on the phrase earlier in the year that put it in my mind as the frontrunner for the WotY crown, and it wears it well, I think.

Happy New Words!


mollymooly said...

In Britain, "gone missing" is also used by sports commentators during action replay, to describe a defender who is not in the right place, thereby allowing an opposing forward space to attack.

Has this usage reached the US yet?

John Cowan said...

I decided to take a look at just how old "gone missing" is in BrE, so I did a quick look through Google's public-domain (that is, pre-1923) books for the phrase. It astonishes me that the BBC has peeved on it when it appears in Parliamentary committee reports so long ago as 1891! "Dr. Clark, M.P." (whom I have not otherwise identified) said that "two or three letters had gone missing" when he was examined by the chairman of the Select Committee on Colonisation on February 10 of that year.

But this is not the first hit by any means. That would be the 1872 novel Under The Red Dragon by James Grant, the first-person narrator says "Many mails had gone missing". I also find 19th-century hits from Canada, Australia, and even the New Zealand House of Representatives. No U.S. hits at all, though a few false positives from British fiction reprinted in the U.S.

(Looking for "go missing" and "went missing" didn't find anything earlier.)

Anonymous said...

"Staycation" for a "holiday in the UK other than at home" really annoys me. They were the norm during my childhood, and they were called "holidays". I think its one of those words coined by journalists used to holidays as perks, which have now dropped off and left them horrified that they might have to join the plebs staying in Blighty.
(The "holiday at home" concept, on the other hand, dates the to war and is all about sunbathing in the back garden and enjoyin glocal amenities: )

Picky said...

I can understand a difficulty some might have with "go missing' - the question of willfulness, because the most natural analogy is with go riding, go dancing, go shopping, go skiing, etc. Nonetheless, "go missing" is fine, sturdy, and useful. (I do have a problem with "found missing", though).

If you really want to add willfulness (actually or ironically), BrE has borrowed the valuable "go walkabout" for that sense.

Richard Howland-Bolton said...

I read your earlier piece on AVIC and, living here in the Colony (actually just near it, north of Dallas), I find it wonderful. I've lived off it for 30 years!
Of course the downside of being English in the US is that I have a bad case of ethnodeficiency (see here or here) and people will insist on saying how they like my accent when I don't even have one.

Andy JS said...

The interesting thing about "gone missing" is that as far as I know it is not regarded in the UK as slangy at all. It's just a normal phrase which anyone might use in any situation. I can imagine it being used in the most sober of situations such as in court for example.

I've never heard "staycation" in normal speech myself. I'd be surprised if it is still in use in a few years time.

Cameron said...

I guess Richard Howard-Bolton is very possibly fishing for a response just like this one, but if you speak you have an accent. The word refers to how you speak, so you can't speak without one. A correct response to "is that an accent I hear?", although inevitably unpopular or over the head of the questioner, would be "yes, because someone spoke".

Anonymous said...

Whither irony?

John Cowan said...

So what is the BrE word for a holiday taken in one's own house? In Murder Must Advertise, Mr Smayle says to his wife, "We shall have to take our holiday in the back garden", but I don't know if that's ad hoc or a standard expression. Google isn't very helpful.

(CAPTCHA is quitest, obviously the superlative of quite.)

townmouse said...

@John Cowan - I've always called it being on the Costa del Backgarden (although someone did ask me where that was once)

Anonymous said...

"If a person 'goes missing', then there's a sense that although we don't know where they are, they do."

Reminds me of a saying that runs in my family: "I AM NOT LOST. I know exactly where I am. What I don,t know is where everything else is."

Robbie said...

I don't think there is a standard BrE term for spending your holiday at home, other than "spending your holiday at home". Or else "not going anywhere for your holiday".

"We shall have to take our holiday in the back garden" is (very) mildly facetious, and I would think coined ad hoc by Sayers.

Anonymous said...

The word "Staycation" makes me physically gag. I am not joking, it catches in my throat like a piece of broken pretzel.
Thankfully I have never encountered the word outside of this blog (On both sides of the Atlantic - I'm a British Ex-Pat), but even thinking about saying it is Nails on the Blackboard/Chalkboard time.

Ken Brown said...

Andy JS said: "The interesting thing about "gone missing" is that as far as I know it is not regarded in the UK as slangy at all. It's just a normal phrase which anyone might use in any situation."

Yep. I didn't realise until reading this page that anyone thought it unusual. Or that it is rare in the USA.

And yes - that other word feels like one of those mainly used by journalists whinging about the way we speak now. Not really part of our common language and not likely to last for long.

Robbie said...

"Gone missing" has been heard on the BBC and other news reports lately, in the sombre circumstances of a teenager who disappeared on Christmas Eve and whose body was found on Boxing Day. So much for it being inherently facetious or slangy.

The usefulness of the phrase comes from its vagueness. "The boy went missing" doesn't imply anything beyond the bare fact of his disappearance -- he could have run away, been kidnapped, or suffered an accident.

Margaret said...

I'm a middle-aged resident of the U.S. southern midlands. I've heard and used the expression "go missing" all my life. It is a common phrase here. I never even realized there were people who had a problem with it.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Margaret! This late 20's female from Chicago and eastern NC has heard/used "go missing" all her life and *never* imagined that it was rare, inferior, or slang (Down with prescriptivism anyway!). Semantically, to me, it does not convey wilfulness, and I'm shocked to hear that analysis. I've never analyzed it as parallel today to "go dancing" - where missing would be a verb - but rather as parallel to "go red (in the face)" - where missing would be an adjective. Thus, it conveys that "we don't know where they are, and they may not either" - applicable most especially to military MIA or other missing persons, until enough of the mystery is solved to discern such more narrow categories as "POW/desertion/kidnapping/runaway/absconded/etc."

Anonymous said...

Or perhaps the British and the Americans have reached back into their German roots to grab out: "verloren gehen" (valency of 2) (to go missing). Perhaps because the British are geographically closer, it has been "remembered" faster?

My personal usage would be solely to express sarcasm - as in I've intentionally pretended to "lose" something, thus allowing it to have gone missing. It still has a somewhat exotic taste to it, which is probably why I would relegate it to a non-serious situation. (AmE L1, Ger L2)

Julie said...

I did not grow up (in California) hearing "gone missing." I'm thinking I've only started seeing it regularly in the past ten years or less.

Mark Anderson said...

Bit late now, but another candidate for US to UK migration is "advisory" as a noun. Eg see

baobao said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DreamersRose said...

I can't stand "gone missing" either. It's just bad English gone popular, on both sides of the Atlantic. What about "He's been missing since Tuesday"?

vp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vp said...


You pontificate that "gone missing" is "bad English", yet in the very same clause you use the collocation "gone popular". Why is one "bad" and the other "good"?

For what it's worth, a search of Google Books found approximately six times as many hits for "gone missing" as for "gone popular".

Wendy said...

Thank goodness! I just had a 2 day debate with my 25 year old English major son who insisted there is nothing out of place or remarkable with the phrase- gone/went missing.

Indeed, but I knew it was a recent affectation, if you will by the US media. Maybe it is the availability of BBC-America programs. I have been watching a British Soap- Eastenders since 1986, and I knew that this phrase was a British term new to this side of the pond. I can occasionally be caught uttering that someone is "in hospital" because of my penchant for British TV shows.

I don't like it "gone missing", because I think it morbidly dramatizes the occurrence. I think what is really being implied is that the missing person has disappeared under mysterious circumstances perhaps out of the control. I like "not been seen". That indeed describes the situation without any speculation- just the facts please!

Finally, structurally, I think the phrase wrongly designates the action- being missing- to a volitional act by the subject- the missing person. If you "go bankrupt" or ballistic or Hollywood- the implication is that the subject is doing this action, while in gone missing- the implication is the the subject, be it a purse or a child has encountered some circumstance not of their making...

vp said...


Would you never say that a drink had "gone cold"? The drink is hardly doing anything in that circumstance.

Kitty O said...

I'm posting more than a year after the original post, so I'm sure nobody will ever see this. But I just have to get this out: Like some of the other US southerners, I'm shocked that "go/gone/went missing" is considered foreign to most AmE speakers. I've used and heard it all my life (I'm 33 and from the US South). "My shoes have gone missing," "Her dog went missing"--I could have sworn I'd heard phrases like these from Americans from other regions as well. And yeah, it doesn't sound any stranger to me than "gone cold" or "went red in the face."

You're right that there's a difference in meaning between "it is missing" and "it has gone missing," and you're right about deflecting blame; that's how I most often use it, with a sort of humorous intent. But there's also something more. I guess it's the difference between "it is cold" and "it has gone cold"--"gone missing" puts more emphasis on the *transition* into the state of being missing. Or something like that.

So is this really a Briticism if US Southerners use it regularly and had no idea that other Americans didn't use it? Was it formerly in use in Britain *and* the US, only to die out everywhere in the US except the South?

lynneguist said...

Hi Kitty--
People do read the comments, even a year after!

I have to start out sceptical/skeptical of your information for two reasons: (1) People's memories aren't very reliable on when they started saying xyz--I should know, I am regularly convinced that I've been saying all sorts of things all my life, and then it turns out they're Briticisms that my US family/friends don't understand. (2) If you're 33, then you've only been reliably aware of language, I'd say, for 20 years at most. That's not a long time in the history of English.

So, with those doubts in mind, I went looking in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) for evidence that 'go missing' has been used in the South for a long time.

'Go missing' can't be found there, but 'go + adverbial [in form of adjective or noun]' is there for cases like 'go Hollywood', 'go native' or 'go ape'. Those, of course, these days are considered 'common English', but DARE notes that this use of 'go' is originally British colloquial, but then moved on to the American southeast. So, you're on to something.

But it's only really been showing up in American written English since the 1980s. The Google Ngram for went/go/gone missing shows this. That might be why in your experience it's not unusual. But for those of us a bit older, it is! And I suspect that the influence of BrE is at least if not more influential in this than just the regional version. (See Ben Yagoda's Britishisms blog for evidence of the Britification of American English in recent decades.)

Thanks for commenting--I love keeping these disucssions alive!