Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Near-miss, Nabokov, and the Face of an Old Lady with a Sandwich

Japanese has borrowed heaps of words from English, just as English has pilfered French, Latin, Greek, you name it.

Sometimes these borrowings throw me off though, for the simple reason that they make me question my grasp of English.

Near-miss (ニアミス) is one of these phrases. Synonymous with close call, it means that the aircraft or boat you were traveling in or on has nearly struck another. (In the case of airplanes, it could mean that the other craft was about a kilometer and a half away.)

But it seems it could also be the case that a near-miss happens when you actually do achieve something, like jumping on the ferry or train at the last second with the doors bumping shut behind you. Is that a near miss? or just a close-call? We say "I nearly missed that train," but do we also say, in that case, "that was a near-miss" or do we only use "close call?"

Vladimir Nabokov, one of my all-time favorite writers, has a short story called "A Matter of Chance" where the lead character, a waiter on a long-distance sleeper train, kills himself, not knowing that his wife, whom he has been separated from for five years because of the war, is sitting cozily in her cabin a couple of cars down, making her way to Paris to find him.

"The station was dark and deserted. Some distance away a lamp shone like a humid star through a gray cloud of smoke. The torrent of rails glistened slightly. He could not understand why the face of the old lady with the sandwich had disturbed him so deeply. Everything else was clear, only this one blind spot remained."

Luzhin, the waiter-husband, fueled by cocaine, jumps down in front of an oncoming train. A near miss and not a near miss nearly simultaneously.

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