I've been censured for calling the nuclear plant incident in Japan a "nuclear accident".

I've never exclusively reserved the word accident only for those things which evolve from or are precipitated by human error, but it appears that others feel it should only be used in connection with human error. Dictionaries seem to suggest I'm ok, but I may have to bend to peer pressure. Partly it seems to stem from this particular usage in connection with anti-nuclear groups.

Has the connotation shifted away from merely unforeseen and undesirable events?

If so, what is a better word to use? I'm shying away from problem and incident as they seem inadequate, and disaster as it seems to inflate things beyond what is necessary.

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    This is somewhat off-topic, but kudos to you for being careful in your diction. I find too often that people (typically the media) blow situations like this out of hand and the next thing you know Californians are all buying iodide and checking their food for radiation. – Yozomiri Mar 29 '11 at 3:53

Fundamentally, you are right. "Accident" does not need a human agency, or even an animate one if we're going to be really picky. Accidents happen; that's rather the point.

The only justification for not using the word "accident" in conjunction with the events at Fukushima is if you believe a design flaw or similar was responsible for what happened. Since that doesn't appear to be the case, stand your ground and reclaim the word!


Accidents arise from chance, but I think there is also some element of human error necessarily involved in an accident. For example, you may have been in a car accident because of chance (a deer running across the road) and human error (not being attentive enough, failing to stop in time).

This also applies in the case of the Japanese nuclear incident/accident/situation. The situation was primarily caused by chance (a tsunami), but also by human error (failing to plan for flooding of the building and general power outage).

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    An accident of fate is a common expression that explicitly excludes human error as the main cause, but I think this is one of the exceptions that proves the rule. With the tragedy still unfolding in Japan, most of us probably feel a bit uncomfortable with even the slightest suggestion of inadequacy in safety provisions (which are probably the best in the world by a considerable margin). – FumbleFingers Mar 29 '11 at 13:53
  • According to theregister.co.uk/2011/03/14/fukushiima_analysis - admittedly, just one view - there was nothing that could reasonably be called a failure to plan for anything in the Fukushima plant. It successfully withstood five times its designed limits. – Colin Fine Mar 29 '11 at 14:09
  • @Colin Fine - My understanding of the situation is that after the flooding due to the tsunami the connections for additional backup generators were inaccessible. However, I am uncertain how accurate that information is and I am unsure how much of an impact it had on the overall situation. However, I certainly agree that the plant held up remarkably. As I noted above, the media and anti-nuclear groups are blowing the situation well out of proportion. – Yozomiri Mar 29 '11 at 15:13
  • I disagree that an accident requires some sort of human action. You can very easily say that "the dog accidentally knocked over the bucket." Here it's clear that the dog did not intend to tip the bucket. Granted, a dog is an animate object, like a human, while earthquakes and tsunamis are not. – oosterwal Mar 29 '11 at 20:20

There was just a news story that hospital emergency rooms in the UK were no longer allowed to put "accident" on a report - everything must have a cause, and presumably somebody at fault - implying that an accident is an event with no human cause.

Ironically since the ER in the UK is most commonly called accident and emergency.

  • Off-topic, I know, but I'm moved to say I don't think you can officially die of "old age" in Britain either (you can in, say, France). Maybe we have lots of immigrants because they want to be in a land where they won't die by accident or from old age. – FumbleFingers Mar 29 '11 at 13:57
  • @Fumble: "Dying from old age" may be shifting into a euphemism for "the cause is unknown" or "they were on their way out anyway." What do you think? – MrHen Apr 5 '11 at 16:57
  • @MrHen: Interesting point. I think probably you're right. My grandmother died recently at age 99, and to a certain extent I know she wasn't completely averse to the final denoument and timing. Her life had become increasingly arduous, and she really didn't want to struggle on through a few more months just so we could celebrate having a centenarian in the family. She just sort of 'gave up', so in context one could almost say she died of 'anti-old age'. In the [far?] future though, I think we'll mostly die of euthanasia. And we'll really need a euphemism for why we chose it. – FumbleFingers Apr 5 '11 at 17:36
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    @MrHen - trouble is that the cause gets rolled in statistics and used for policy. When everybody dies their heart stops, so write all old-age deaths down as 'heart failure' and the govt invests in heart surgeons to counter this new epidemic, meanwhile it masks a rise in heart disease in the young – mgb Apr 5 '11 at 17:39

Depending on who is doing the censuring, it is typically best to play ball and find another word. That being said, I find no problems with using the word "accident" to describe events as the word is defined in a dictionary.

It does feel a little strange to suggest that a tree falling on your house was an "accident" but I find it feels odd more from disuse than misuse:

The tree fall on my house! What a terrible accident!

It seems more suitable to use "accident" this way when the victim was human:

I had an accident with a tree. It fell on me.

Causation isn't necessarily implied (I didn't knock the tree over) but it feels less strange in my mouth.

Accidents can also be attributed to non-human wills or causes (even if they are really just autonomous entities):

The dog had an accident on the rug.

The computer accidentally crashed.

And the ties are loosened further when talking about accidentally doing something:

The planet accidentally destroyed its own moon.

Part of the advantage of using accident is that it softens the blame of a tragedy or event by shifting the causes onto uncontrollable chance. A more direct attribution of fault would use words such as mistake, error or problem. Ignoring the blame as much as possible could be accomplished with words like tragedy, horror or event.

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