words mean things #3: accident

I’d like to see people stop using the word accidental when what they mean is unintentional.

That “accident” has come to mean “unintended incident” is a great example of what I call “definition drift.”  We are inherently lazy.  Couple that with the fact that the English language is incredibly difficult to master – even for native speakers – and what happens is that, over time, we use a word that sort of matches our intention more and more often until its use like that becomes common.

Just because it’s common doesn’t mean it’s correct, so let’s take a look at accident.

It’s a coincidence that this is another gun-related post, and that’s just because I read a piece this morning out of Texas about a teenager who “accidentally” shot himself with a gun.  Unfortunately, the kid died, and that’s tragic, but it wasn’t an accidental shooting – it was an unintentional shooting.  Nobody suspects that suicide was this boy’s intention, so everybody agrees that he had no intention of shooting himself.

That makes it an unintentional shooting.  He was messing around with a gun he and a friend found somewhere, taking pictures and … well, acting like a teenager.  Bang.

Let me back up a little bit and explore.  I don’t know exactly what happened, I only know what I read in the article, so let me say that it is entirely possible that this was, indeed, an accidental shooting.  The kids found the gun and were, effectively, playing with it.  There could have been something wrong with the gun, some internal problem or malfunction, that caused the gun to fire simply because it was moved or manipulated in some way.  If that’s indeed the case, not only was the shooting unintentional, but it happened through no fault or action of the person holding the gun.

That would indeed be an accident.  The key concept in “accident” is that nobody is at fault.  If you see something occur and the only platitude you can come up with that totally, completely fits the situation is “shit happens,” then that was most likely an accident.  If you see something occur and it started with “Hey, hold my beer” then it was not an accident.

Example:  Frozen waste falls from airplane passing high overhead, crushing the doghouse in your back yard.  Thankfully, Fido was in the house with you, so he’s OK, but the doghouse is a total loss.  ACCIDENT!

I admit this is a hot-button issue/word with me.  As a motorcyclist, I hear and read quite often about “accidents” that put riders in the hospital or in the morgue. A rider in the DC area got killed by an inattentive driver just yesterday (I didn’t know him), and the reporter called it an accident, thus triggering this post.

Example:  You’re riding your 1978 Honda CB750 on I 95 when the tube in the front tire breaks, causing the front tire to flatten in a rapid and unsafe manner.  You try to get safely to the side of the highway, but before you can come to a stop, your bike zigs a bit harder than it zags and you clip the guard rail, crashing.  ACCIDENT.

Example:  You’re riding your 1996 Honda Shadow through a T-intersection and you have the right of way.  Before you can get all the way through the intersection, a woman driving a Ford Taurus puts her front license plate into you, breaking your leg and destroying your motorcycle.  NOT AN ACCIDENT.  That is negligence on the part of the driver and your injuries are unintended, not accidental.

I’m sure the old lady that ran you (me) over didn’t wake up that morning and think, “Gee, I’d really love to run into a motorcycle with my car and put somebody in the hospital.  Maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll kill him.”  Lucky for me she wasn’t lucky, eh?

Negligent behavior has unintended consequences.  Those unintended consequences might be predictable (example: if you regularly text while driving, we can predict with a high level of certainty that sooner or later you will crash your car), but they most certainly are not accidental.

Example: Lightning strikes the tree next to your house, causing it to fall and crush your car in the driveway.  ACCIDENT.

Example: You are cutting down the tree next to your house and messed up the angles, so when it comes down, it does so in the driveway, crushing your car.  UNINTENTIONAL.

I’m on a crusade to eradicate the word accident from use in my writing except when it is absolutely, truly an accident.  When an incident is unintentional, I use the word collision or crash.


PS Not everything portrayed in this post is 100% factual, but some of these incidents did indeed occur.