16 November 2022

Attempted Language

  I have been thinking lately about the weird ways the English language deals with certain incomplete actions.  The weirdest part is that all of the examples I come up with are about bad things.  Let me give you eight-ish examples.

1. This particular flea jumped into me ear because I hear people talking about the events of January 6th as a coup. For this column I am not interested in discussing politics but language.  Surely if that's what it was, it was an attempted coup, right?  Because it didn't succeed.

2.  And then there is what the Russians are doing in Ukraine.  I have seen it referred to as genocide.  Well, the dictionary says that that is killing a lot of people in the hope of destroying a nation or ethnic group.  But if that's what's going on we would have to call it attempted genocide, because (hooray!) they don't seem to be succeeding.

3. On a more personal basis, let's say I tried to punch you on the nose and missed.  (I'd be glad I did, because I really do like you.)  In some states I would be guilty of attempted assault.  In others the charge would be actual assault.  If I had connected with your schnoz (sorry!) it would be assault and battery.

4. And then there is mutiny.  My knowledge of that offense is based strictly on fiction, mostly the movie based on Herman Wouk's famous novel. But I was under the impression that even discussing mutiny amounted to mutiny.  So is there such a thing as attempted mutiny?

I asked two people likely to know more than me.  Mystery writer James Lincoln Warren served in the Navy and his wife Margaret Warren was actually a Navy attorney.  They point out that charges of mutiny are extremely rare; simply "disobeying orders" is the more likely offense. But Margaret notes that the Uniform Code of Military Justice does recognize the existence of "attempted mutiny." So Fred MacMurray in The Caine Mutiny has been dethroned as my source of legal wisdom. Much thanks to Margaret and James.

5. I think for many years people tended to confuse impeach with "remove from office." Thanks to a certain politician we have become aware in recent years that it only means indict, not convict.

6. What is the difference between "I tried to warn you" and "I warned you?"  Unless the email doesn't get delivered, isn't the result the same?

7. Another  sign of our interesting times: I have heard people talk about conspiracy when contextually they obviously mean conspiracy theory.  

8. Slightly different issue...  If you take the sentence "He was tempted to do it" and change it to "He was tempted to do it by the devil," the word tempted shifts its meaning.

9. Slightly MORE off-topic.  Somebody should use the ambiguity of "had" in a mystery story.  Agatha Christie could have built a novel on it, and for all I know she did.  Here's what I mean: "John had his house robbed" probably means "Somebody robbed John's house," but it could mean "John arranged for someone to rob his house."  The cad.  

And that's all I've got.  I hope it entertained you, if not, I at least, uh, tried.


  1. Oooo, I love #9! Regarding temptation, this is one of my favorite passages from Mapp & Lucia (E. F. Benson): "[Miss Mapp] stopped opposite [Lucia's house] for a moment: there was that prodigious sheet of dazzling water now close to the top of the restraining bank to admire: there was herself to screw up to the humility required for asking Lucia if she might join her silly callisthenic class. Finally, coming from nowhere, there flashed into her mind the thought of lobster à la Riseholme, the recipe for which Lucia had so meanly withheld from her. Instantly that thought fructified into apples of Desire." And she breaks in.

    1. I've never read Mpp and L altough I have heard good things about it. THanks.

  2. Elizabeth Dearborn16 November, 2022 15:00

    My daughter got punched in the eye at school in New Jersey when she was 16. The perp, also a minor, was charged with assault. After visiting the ophthalmologist, the diagnosis was more severe than originally thought & the charges were upgraded to aggravated assault.

    1. Yikes. Did this take place in juvenile court? What was the result?

    2. Elizabeth Dearborn16 November, 2022 22:52

      The case went to court although we were not notified. The perp had to pay some of the medical bills & was unable to join the Air Force, but she graduated with her class & never even got suspended. If you think I'm still angry about this, you're correct.

  3. The most peculiar construct along these lines is ‘near miss’. Wait… If you nearly missed someone, wouldn’t that be a hit? If you come close to hitting someone but don’t, shouldn’t that be near ‘hit’? Enquiring minds want to know.


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