When is a “Mistake” Not a Mistake?

By Maeve Maddox

In his landmark essay about the English language, George Orwell talked about multi-syllabic Latin words that fall

upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.

It’s not just lengthy Latin words that are used to conceal meaning. The simple Old Norse word mistake is used to cover a multitude of behaviors that have little to do with the conventional meaning of the word.

Definitions from the OED:

mistake n. a. A misconception about the meaning of something; a thing incorrectly done or thought; an error of judgementb. In generalized use: misapprehension, misunderstanding; error, misjudgement. d. something chosen through an error of judgement; a badly selected thing, a regrettable choice.

To me, a mistake is something like forgetting to add baking powder to a recipe, or hiring someone who lied about her credentials, or marrying the wrong man–things that stem from absent-mindedness, ignorance, or misinterpretation of the facts.

Setting my house on fire to collect the insurance, on the other hand, would be a deliberate act, committed with the full knowledge that doing so was not only against the law, but might endanger the lives of others.

Here are some quotations from the news in which the use of the word mistake seems out of place, considering the age of the persons claiming to have made the “mistake,” and the nature of the acts that are being called “mistakes.”

I made a mistake in using bad judgment and making bad decisions. –27-year-old sports hero Michael Vick, The mistake was operating a large-scale dog-fighting operation.

I made a mistake and ask God to forgive me –45-year-old pastor Richard Dent. The mistake was stealing the life savings of an elderly parishioner.

“I am willing to grow and learn from the mistakes that I have made. –39-year-old publicist Tamika Riley. The mistake was tax evasion and fraudulent acquisition of government housing subsidies.

Myers said it was the first time in his life he had a gun and he made a mistake. –22-year-old Charlie Myers. The mistake was shooting a woman dead in front of her four-year-old son and then taking the child and abandoning him at a highway rest stop.

I understand why people caught in a crime choose to use the word mistake.

“Mistake” is a pacifying word. Every one of us makes mistakes, every day of our lives. For that reason, when we hear that someone has apologized for his mistake, our instinctive reaction is to want to forgive. We probably wouldn’t react the same way to the phrase admitted to his crime.

No one can prevent convicted embezzlers, arsonists, child-abusers, or killers from calling their crimes “mistakes,” but as writers we can use the word in suitable contexts.

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10 Responses to “When is a “Mistake” Not a Mistake?”

  • Brad K.

    I was told that their is a hierarchy of slip, mistake, and error.

    A slip is a typo, or an oversight or when a stroke victim utter a word different than the one intended. You know the right thing, believe you are doing the right thing, but something .. slips. A mechanical misfire between the brain and the result.

    A mistake is knowing the right thing, but forgetting what the right thing is. And you do what you intended to do – it is just that what you intended to do was wrong. Like hanging a blue shower curtain in a mostly green bathroom, “Blue and green go together only in the washing machine.” A mistake.

    An error is knowing what is right – but what you believe is right is actually incorrect. “There is plenty of time to get through the intersection before anyone will hit me.” “But I thought 3 times 9 is 26?” “So, to find the size of an acre, I divide a square mile, in feet, by 620.” (There are 640 acres in a square mile. At 5280 feet per mile x 5280 feet, an acre is 43,560 square feet. I believe this is called a survey acre in the US, and may be different than an international acre.)

    In programming, a compile-time error stopped the compiler from generating an output file, a format error meant expected information was incorrect or not arranged correctly, and a typo was an all too frequent mistake on a keypunch machine. (Some keypunch machines didn’t print the letters on the card, just made the holes. My first quiz in assembly language programming was to interpret the punches in three IBM cards.)

    I believe the description for Mr. Vick and several others is “criminal intent”. Perhaps “situational ethics” – the philosophy that right and wrong are relative to the opportunities of the moment. One immoral stance is “anything is legal as long as you don’t get caught.”

  • Clare Lynch

    Great post! I’ve been waging a war on similarly insidious misuses of words on my own blog and I wish I’d spotted this example.

    In our current times, when we’re all being asked to cough up to pay for the “mistakes” of assorted nefarious bankers, it’s vital that we keep our ears open to such mendacious uses of the language.

  • Dick

    A somewhat related (mis)use of words is the modern form of apology.

    “I’m sorry that people took offense at what I said.”

  • Baraka

    Maeve, if you would, kindly follow-up on Brad’s– ‘I was told that their is a hierarchy of slip, mistake, and error’…expanding on the whole continuum: mishap, glitch, flaw and the like…This is such a great sight (ad….!)..Thanks!

  • Baraka

    Please read Brad’s– ‘I was told that their is a hierarchy of slip, mistake, and error’ (sic!)…Also, I actually wanted to say ‘such a great site’…a comedy of ‘mistakes’!…

  • Brad K.

    Dick, this particular aspect of an apology comes up in a series of SF novels by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.

    There are two parts. One is that the speaker has concern for your dismay. The other is that what you are dismayed about – the speaker may have done intentionally, and does not consider the act an error or mistake. When the speaker acts out of necessity or obligation, the act itself does not require an apology. Regardless, the impact of that act might cause the listener to feel the need to have their justifiable feelings acknowledged.

    “I am sorry you were startled and scared by US Air Force One buzzing downtown Manhattan like a hijacked airliner during morning rush hour last Monday. President Obama’s people told the FAA and NYPD – requiring them to keep the plans secret – so no laws were broken, and they got one really nice picture and a couple of hilarious shots of office buildings emptying.”

    “I am sorry, ma’am, I will still need to see your driver’s license and registration, please.” The highway patrol officer is apologizing for the impact of his intrusion into the driver’s life. The act of stopping the motorist and demanding identification are done out of responsibility and to serve the public good (supposedly), and no apology is offered for the stop or the demand for identification.

    A callous or arrogant person might refuse to apologize for their behavior for pathological reasons, and a person refusing to take responsibility for their actions might refuse to apologize as well.

    Which is one reason that honest and clear communication is to be cherished, and a courtesy we might each extend to those around us.

  • Peter

    To me, a mistake is something like […] hiring someone who lied about her credentials

    I wouldn’t call it a mistake if you didn’t know about the lie.

    or marrying the wrong man–things

    I had to read that twice before I realized you weren’t saying “man-things” 🙂

    The mistake was tax evasion

    Evading thieves trying to steal your property is not usually considered a mistake.

    “Blue and green go together only in the washing machine.”

    Interesting. My mother says “blue and green must ne’er be seen”…but I often see people—and I mean people who get professional fashion advice, like movie stars and TV news anchors—wearing blue and green, so always discounted it…

  • Tom

    The definition of mistake says ‘a regrettable choice’.
    Then isn’t a convicted criminal using the word correctly. I would think that many would feel regret over decisions like these.

    Yes, they probably didn’t want to get caught but isn’t regret a product of consequences not actions?

    What other word would be suitable?

  • Brad K.

    Tom, I think the difference is recidivism – the habitual criminal.

    An honest, or nearly honest person may make a mistake, and regret their choice. This is taking responsibility for their choices, and for all the consequences of those choices.

    For too many of those incarcerated, or should be, their only regret is getting caught. They blame chance and luck, their cohorts and partners, they blame the cops for interfering, or the victim for messing up their plan. They didn’t make a mistake, a regrettable choice – they believe they made the right choice, they just slipped up this once.

    It is easy to spot kids in schools today with either attitude. The general approach to life is often set by age four, when the personality is reputed to be formed. People change all the time, when they encounter a life-changing influence. But too many people meet bad influences, and way too many never find the door out to honor and respect.

  • Liz

    After adultery, it is not easy to forgive the choices that were made. If this was only a mistake, an oops, it would be different. I think forgiveness is cheapened when we are asked to forgive a choice as if it were a mistake. Forgiveness for bad choices feels like an entirely different situation. The choice of adultery is NOT a mistake -it is a bad choice; the consequences are due to the choice not just an error, an oops.

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