The Grammarphobia Blog

Plane English

Q: Please take on the use of the terminally vague word “midair” to describe airborne collisions between aircraft. I had thought it was eliminated years ago for vagueness, but everyone, including the government, seems to have re-embraced it lately.

A: Yes, “midair” is about as vague as a word comes. What’s “mid” about “midair” – that is, what midpoint is being referred to, if any?

The word “midair,” a noun often used adjectivally, is no more precise than “air” or “airborne.” Besides, it seems unnecessary. Unless planes collide on a runway, collisions between them necessarily happen in the air.

Nevertheless, “midair” is well established, probably because “air collision” doesn’t have the punch of “midair collision.”

I can find nothing against it, either in the style books of the Associated Press or the New York Times, or in general usage guides.

After a small plane and a sightseeing helicopter collided over the Hudson River last Aug. 8, killing nine people, both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times (and I’m sure many other papers as well) described the incident as a “midair collision.”

The accident happened at about 1,100 feet – a low altitude, by aviation standards, but probably high enough to qualify as “midair,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED defines “mid-air” (it uses the hyphen) as “a part or region of the air not close to the ground (or some equivalent surface).”

Other dictionaries are also imprecise about how high “midair” is.

In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), “midair” is “a point or region in the air not immediately adjacent to the ground.”

And in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), it’s merely “a point or region in the air.” That’s a lot of latitude in terms of altitude.

The OED‘s first published citations for the word are from the 17th century and have nothing to do with aircraft.

The earliest use, in the form of a noun, is from a 1605 translation by Josuah Sylvester of a work by Guillaume du Bartas, referring to “Th’ excessiue cold of the mid-Aire.”

The first use of the phrase “in mid-air” is from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): “Zophiel, of Cherubim the swiftest wing, / Came flying, and in mid Aire aloud thus cri’d.”

The OED‘s first citation that has anything to do with aviation comes from a letter written by the English art critic and Bloomsbury figure Roger Fry in 1928: “Reports of aeroplanes that catch fire and grill the passengers in mid-air.”

However, I found a few earlier aviation citations myself (probably not the first) in a casual search of the New York Times’s online archives.

This headline appeared on March 6, 1912: “MAN STRANGLES IN MIDAIR. / Runaway Airship Carries Foreman Off with Rope Around His Neck.”

The following year, another German airship accident was described in the Times as a “Midair Tragedy.”

Less grim was an 1890 article headlined “WEDDING IN MIDAIR,” announcing a marriage ceremony that had taken place on a balloon flight.

The word seems to have been used steadily ever since in aviation journalism. This is a representative citation from the Guardian (1970): “If something is not done soon about these near misses, there is bound to be a mid-air collision.”

By the way, what people mean by “near miss” is “near collision.” But over the years, “near miss” has become so common that it’s gained acceptance as an idiomatic expression.

Of course it’s not literally correct – a plane that’s had what we call a near miss doesn’t nearly miss disaster, it DOES miss it! But the phrase is now accepted even by dictionaries as meaning “a narrowly avoided collision.”

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