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TWTS: A "near miss" always misses

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If someone told you they had a near miss with another vehicle while they were driving to work, how would you react?

Some of you might breathe a sigh of relief and tell them you’re glad nothing happened. Others might want to know whether the car was totaled. If you’re in the latter camp, your friend might be confused.

That’s because a “near miss” doesn’t actually hit anything.

We’re not here to argue whether that definition makes sense, but we can certainly empathize with our listener Irene Rosen, who says, “It drives me crazy when the expression ‘near miss’ is used when referring to an actual miss. Shouldn't it be ‘near hit’?”

It could be a near hit, but it’s not. It’s a near miss. That’s because “near miss” is an idiom, and idioms mean what they mean. And this one has very much entrenched itself into the language.

In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, you’ll likely find three different definitions for “near miss.” The first is “a miss,” as in a bomb that misses its target but still hits close enough to cause damage.

The second meaning is “a narrowly averted collision.” The third meaning is metaphorical, as in “something that falls just short of success.”

The phrase “near miss” goes back to military usage and took off during World War II. It referred to a bomb exploding, for example, close enough to a ship to cause damage but not to actually sink it.

Today though, the idea that damage is caused by a near miss is fairly obsolete. A “near miss” is a near hit, a near collision.

People trying to argue the other side of this logic will say that a “near miss” is a hit. It almost missed, but it didn’t. It was a close miss, but it wasn’t a miss, therefore, it was a hit.

However, as we’ve said before, idioms mean what they mean. And the idiom “near miss” means a near collision.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.