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 judgement�b. 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.