Amiss Goes Awry

I was reading a thoughtful newspaper column by a high school student in our regional newspaper when I was struck by this sentence: “I would be amiss if I failed to call out the Democrats for some of their recent shortcomings as well.”

He meant, of course, “I would be remiss.”

“Remiss” is an interesting word. The early meanings of this adverb are synonyms with “weak,” but it eventually evolved to mean principally “lax,” “careless,” “sloppy,” “neglectful.”

People are said to be remiss when they don’t do what they should, but the word is also often used in negative constructions asserting that people would be remiss not to do something they should, as in this instance.

Whereas people can be remiss, only things can go amiss. If you shoot an arrow at a target and miss it, the arrow has gone amiss. So when affairs or processes don’t turn out the way they should, they go amiss.

“Amiss” is also frequently used in the double-negative construction: “it would not be amiss,” meaning “it would be correct.”

A related word is “awry.” “Wry” means “twisted,” “crooked.” A wry smile is a crooked smile. An arrow gone awry could stick in the target at an awkward angle.

But the metaphorical uses of these two words are much the same: when events go awry they also go amiss.


Anonymous said...

Tell me about soft double negatives. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

In the second last paragraph, shouldn't it be 'An arrow'?

Tom said...

Oops, yes. Now corrected "A arrow" to "An arrow." Thank you!