A reader identified only as "Genie," writes, "Each time I'm confronted with either of the popular phrases, 'gone missing' or 'went missing,' I cringe. If someone isn't here now, although they used to be here, is it not established that they are 'gone'? To add to my growing irritation, these phrases also make it sound as if 'missing' is an activity, like fishing or shopping, instead of a state of being. So, all I really want to know is: Has 'vanished' vanished?"
No. And disappeared is still there too, along with misplaced, stolen, lost, deserted, and absconded, to list some other synonyms offered by language maven Robert Hartwell Fiske as alternatives to this idiom that has Genie and others popping their corks.
He shares their dismay. He writes: "People are so dull-witted and impressionable that, today, in this country [the United States], the popularity of 'gone' or 'went missing' has soared," he writes. (Note the warm, philanthropic tone.) The alternatives he suggests "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."
I am loath to defend vagueness, but there is something to be said for using a broader term until you're certain which narrower term applies - until you know whether the no-longer-visible one has gone AWOL, been kidnapped or worse, or perhaps (let's hope) just ambled into town for a cappuccino. As the BBC style-guide, quoted by William Safire, says, " 'Disappear' and 'vanish' do not convince, and they suggest dematerialization, which is rare.''
"Gone missing" is one of a silent tide of Anglicisms that have flowed into American conversation over the past dozen years or so. "Run-up" is another one: Twenty years ago it was used exclusively by our British stringers; now we can hardly get through a day without it. (This past spring, USA Today reported that Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" was expected to do well "in the run-up to Easter." Silly me, I thought there was already a term for that: Lent.)
This British invasion seems a little counterintuitive. Why now? My own explanation might be summed up as "Gulf war run-up syndrome": Within the past 15 years, two wars in Iraq have led to lots of British and American reporters rubbing shoulders out on the battlefield and in the briefing rooms. Both wars had precise start dates that followed long lead times - for which, after the fact, "run-up" really does seem the right word. The demands of the 24-hour news cycle and the wonders of satellite phones mean that British and American journalists pop up regularly in one another's pages and broadcasts.
So slowly, slowly, mainstream Americans get used to hearing brisk BBC reporters with names like Nigel and Simon talking about explosives that perhaps went missing during the run-up to the war. (Are BBC listeners getting used to hearing about a place that seems to be called "Eye Rack"?)
In any case, once I'd read that Bette Midler had told CNN talk-show host Larry King, "Shame has gone missing from our lives," I knew the term had crossed over.
A postscript: Anyone who's known English for more than a week is used to the idea that the past tense of "go" is "went." But "went" is borrowed from the quaintly old-fashioned verb "wend" (as in, "He went his way into Stowe-on-the-Wold for cream tea"). Such borrowing from unrelated words to form past tenses and comparatives of very commonly used words like "be" and "good" is known as suppletion. It reminds me of a family's everyday dishes, used so much that some get broken and then are replaced with new stuff that doesn't match. The original past tense of "go" has disappeared from the language. We might even say it's gone missing.
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