I am Glad that “Turned Up Missing” has “Gone Missing”

Ben Yagoda tracks the movement of British expressions to America, focusing in particular on “gone/went missing”. He traces the arrival of the phrase to a story about Chandra Levy written by Helen Kennedy (who gladly accepts the credit).

I for one am grateful to Kennedy. Growing up in West Virginia, someone such as the unfortunate Ms. Levy would be said to have “turned up missing”. This oxymoronic phrase has confused language-acquiring children for generations: If she turned up, how can she be missing? “Went missing” and “gone missing” in contrast are logically consistent internally and I welcome them with thanks to American shores.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

7 thoughts on “I am Glad that “Turned Up Missing” has “Gone Missing””

  1. Well I hope most cases end happier than the Levy case.

    But I think “turned up missing” can have a certain charm to it. Logic is not the only value when it comes to language.

  2. My friend Jean took a deposition years ago in which the witness was asked to explain how a particular death had occurred. Evidently there was a raucous party, and soe dispute as to who did what. “I dunno,” the witness responded, “the dude come up dead.”

    Actually sounds pretty clear to me.

    [On the narrower point: “you’ve gone to ground” always struck me as clear enough. Perhaps we should also consider “I’ve been looking for you on the side of a milk carton.”]

  3. This isn’t relevant, but: Yagoda! What a fantastical and spooky family name.

    Marvin Yagoda runs Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum in suburban Detroit — in a strip mall! — an incredible, working storehouse of antique amusement game mechanisms from Coney Island, from Brighton, from all over the world. Some of them are nearly 100 years old, and you can still play with them.

    Genrikh Yagoda was an infamous henchman of Stalin’s, responsible for many slave labor camps and projects, himself eventually purged and executed in the infamous “Show Trials”, all the while proclaiming his loyalty to Stalin.

  4. Curious – the term ‘oxymoron’ is not, of itself, a pejorative term. It is a form of figurative speech that enriches language. Of course such a construction will confuse those not fully familiar with the language, but so will any such metaphoric construction that doesn’t meet the general felicity conditions necessary for the interpretation of any non-literal utterance. Thus, anyone totally unfamiliar with the desert will be flummoxed by “”the silent thunder of dawn in the desert…” but the fact that “silent thunder” is oxymoronic is no condemnation, even though you appear to use it as such with respect to “turned up missing.”

    I’m not clear on what it is that you are troubled by in this phrase – it seems that it works much like the construction of the paradoxes found in the Tao, e.g. the description of how a vase functions not by being, but by what it holds – initially – nothing. I could go on analyzing the relationships of this phrase to other more literal statements, but that gets tedious. I would argue that this phrase and many more like it enrich our language independent of their origin and especially because they break the bounds of literal speech.

    You’re responsible for my reading some of the richest English I’ve encountered recently (I’m on my third Goddard). I’m wondering what is at the base of your discomfort with “turned up missing.” The fact that it is an oxymoron seems like a weak condemnation, it might better have been a recommendation.

    I hope that you don’t find this brief analysis a sophistry, in some ways this is a very minor difference. But in a language desert as the US seems to have become, silent thunder arises all too rarely and I think that richness should be encouraged, even though there are some whose experience will not allow them to fully interpret that richness. I don’t want my language to sink the barren desert of the literal, and I truly doubt that your expression will sink there either (widdershins indeed).

  5. Brad: “You’re responsible for my reading some of the richest English I’ve encountered recently (I’m on my third Goddard). I’m wondering what is at the base of your discomfort with “turned up missing.” The fact that it is an oxymoron seems like a weak condemnation, it might better have been a recommendation.”

    I am so glad you are enjoying Goddard!

    On your point, remember my whole quote “oxymoronic phrase has confused language-acquiring children for generations” This isn’t a condemnation of oxymorons, there are many that charm, what I said was that such phrases confuse children who are learning language.

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