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I listen to AP Radio News, and I heard the following report on September 12:

“Two military planes were sent to intercept an American Airlines flight headed for New York from Los Angeles after reports of a disturbance. Federal officials say the escort was out of abundance of caution. The plane landed safely about 4:10 pm. A Federal official says three people locked themselves in the bathroom.”

What does the escort was “out of abundance of caution,” mean? Though I'm afraid my ears were wrong, can you put this line into plainer English?

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Really, it boils down to meaning "We did it to cover our asses". A worried flight attendant calls HQ, HQ chain of command decides it needs to "pass the buck" onto the Homeland Security, Homeland Security calls the local airbase commander, who scrambles a couple of jets. All of whom felt they could not put a stop to the silliness, solely because of some remote chance of something bad might happen, and then taking the heat of an entire nation for not "doing something" if something actually did happen. –  Firstrock Sep 16 '11 at 0:27

3 Answers 3

It means that even though it may not have been necessary, the officials sent the escort as a precaution. "Caution" is a synonym for "carefulness" and "prudence," so in acting out of an "abundance of caution," the officials were acting with a lot of carefulness.

The common English saying "Better to be safe than sorry" expresses the same idea.

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Although the phrase has long existed and been used in insurance and other fields, I think its recent popularity stems from Inauguration Day 2009, when Chief Justice Roberts flubbed his administration of the Oath of Office to President-elect Obama. The oath was repeated later, it was explained to the press, out of an abundance of caution. articles.cnn.com/2009-01-21/politics/… –  choster Jan 5 '12 at 0:29

The origin is a Latin phrase, ex abundante cautela, used in Roman courts, and transferred to English/American courtrooms, and then to everyday life. The original phrase refers to verbiage in a contract specifying (for example) what happens if a 90-year old has further children. Since there has been a recent move from using Latin phrases which not everyone understands to using English translations, which (as in this case) not even the user understands, the usual meaning is approximately "there's no good reason".

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It means, "somebody panicked and we wasted $50 thou of the taxpayers' money almost shooting down a civilian airliner and now we need a catch-phrase to justify it."

"Three people locked themselves in the bathroom." Everyone locks himself in the bathroom. On an airplane, the light won't even go on until you lock yourself in there. The (false) implication was, people locked themselves in and wouldn't come out.

In fact, two people spent more time in the bathroom than some third person felt was appropriate. When the two finished using the bathroom for its intended purpose, they returned peaceably to their seats.

The upshot was people sitting near the third person gave him that "Dude, what is wrong with you?" look and the whole matter was forgotten. Hah-hah, I'm kidding of course: the upshot was the US Air Force (old motto: "Aim High!", new motto: "Faster than you can take a crap!") scrambled two F-16s in order to ...

Well, what? In the four serious attempts to crash US airliners since the WTC attacks, the attackers in every case were tackled and immobilized by fellow passengers, who reasoned, correctly, that it wouldn't matter to them whether they died crashing into a corn-field or into an office building but it make a big difference to other people. Even if those two guys in the lavatories had been carrying something more dangerous than loose bowels, they still wouldn't have been able to commandeer or destroy the plane.

The F-16s, by contrast, were perfectly capable of bring down the flight and killing all aboard. Don't think it could happen? Ask the passengers of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 or Iran Air Flight 655. They too were brought down by "an abundance of caution."

OBLIGATORY ENGLISH.STACKEXCHANGE CONTENT

Why do I bring this up here? Why not post it in rants.stackexchange.com? (No, it doesn't exist but I totally fell for it the first time somebody suggested I go there.) Because you don't have be George Orwell to see that corrupted language is used by dishonest people -- dishonest politicians in particular but dishonest people in general -- to hide what they're doing and thereby continue doing it.

Yes, "an abundance of caution" literally means something like "better safe than sorry" but in this context and many others it means "I panicked and wasted a lot of money and endangered some innocent people and now I want you to help us all pretend I'm not an idiot".

It's important that we use language (when we speak and when we listen) precisely and carefully, so idiots like the FAA guy don't get away with their idiocy.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled web-site. All "tl;dr" will be stoically acknowledged.

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The war on terror has led to a lot of imaginative new English language and usage, from "limited kinetic action" to "special renditions" and "special methods of questioning" –  mgb Sep 15 '11 at 16:29
    
And indeed "War on terror". –  Colin Fine Sep 15 '11 at 16:51
    
"Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages." -- Samuel Johnson –  Malvolio Sep 15 '11 at 18:51
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@Malvolio. Bureaucrats have their own special terminology. I find it applies to every country. In Japan, when goverment officials say “We will consider this matter in forward-looking way,” it means they simply wait and see.” “Without delay” means “after they have retired.” “We aim at” means “We go nowhere.” We have a popular book titled “Basic Knowledge of Mandarins’ Jargon” designed to decipher Bureaucrats’ clichés in Japan. I was a bit relieved to find difficulty in glasping the meaning of the phrase was not solely due to my poor English, but to usual obfuscation of bureaucrats’ rhetoric. –  Yoichi Oishi Sep 15 '11 at 21:24
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@choster -- being precise and non-emotional are both good things, but I don't think that "abundance of caution" is either. I believe it was actually meant deceptively, like Yoichi's examples. –  Malvolio Jan 5 '12 at 20:34

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