I have heard all three of these expressions in various parts of the US to describe the disappearance of things.

All three expressions appear to be readily understood. Are some more common in certain regions of the US or in other parts of the English speaking world?

Addendum: Growing up in Texas, I most commonly heard to take missing, which I suppose arose analogously from to take sick.

In movies and TV, to go missing is more common and presumably the standard form of the expression.

But one sometimes hears the contradictory to turn up missing.

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    Can you share some real life examples of where you've heard these used? – marcellothearcane Jul 8 '18 at 15:31
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    From a logical point of view, turn up missing has always been quite bizarre to me. How can you both turn up (= stop being missing) and be missing at the same time? I don’t recall hearing take missing; I would guess that is a more dialectally limited form. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 8 '18 at 15:31
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    Hmmnn...I have always put "to turn up missing" in the same class as "to wake up dead". – Cascabel Jul 8 '18 at 15:36
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    My point is that "was found to be missing" is grammatical and idiomatic, and only mildly jarring, in spite of the incongruity. The Phrase Finder indicates that "turned up missing" is used arguably acceptably, though many would find it to be more jarring. The broadened usage is 'She turned up missing' = '[On investigating,] it was found that she was missing'. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 8 '18 at 16:41
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    @tchrist I know that—but it still feels odd, in the same way that Cascabel’s example of ‘wake up dead’ feels odd. Even in this more abstract sense of turn up, there is still an element of appearing or presenting oneself (as per OED), which is precisely what someone who’s missing doesn’t to. It’s perfectly normal usage, of course, and I’ve used it myself; it’s just one of those things that, when you think about it, doesn’t really hold up to logical scrutiny. Similarly, “she appears to have disappeared” (no she doesn’t—she’s vanished, she doesn’t appear at all). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 8 '18 at 19:15


To turn up missing is not a contradiction because here to turn up X with a complement means something completely different from the similar to turn up that means to put in an appearance. To turn up X instead means to turn out to be X or (to be) found out to be X. It does not mean that it made an appearance. These are different constructions with different histories.

See also to turn up trumps for a phrase that works like to turn up missing and not like to turn up or to turn up something.

to go missing

The phrase to go X, where X is an adjective or prepositional phrase, is an construction handed down to us from time immemorial; for example, Old English had to go on two meaning to be or become divided in two, and Middle English sees Chaucer having people going out of their wits for woe in the Knight’s Tale.

Per the paywalled OED, the general construction means:

  1. intr. To pass into a certain state or condition (often implying deterioration).

    a. With adjective or prepositional phrase as complement. To pass into or come to be in a specified state or condition; to become.

    Often in phrases indicating mental decline, as to go out of one's mind, etc. to go crazy, to go loco, to go mad, to go off one's rocker, etc.: see the final element.

It then mentions many phrases like going bankrupt, going commando, going rogue, going native, going public, and going missing. About the latter the OED say:

to go missing: to become lost or not able to be found, esp. through not being in an expected place.

The earliest citation provided is from the New York Herald (U.S.) in 1845, but the latest citation is from the Carmarthen Journal (Wales) in 2011. There’s also a nineteenth-century Australian citation, so I don’t believe this is limited to any one corner of the anglosphere. It is not marked casual or colloquial.

to turn up missing

The intransitive phrasal verb to turn up of something appearing casually or unexpectedly, or to arrive or present oneself but not unexpectedly, doesn’t appear until the 1700s. When used with a complement, it means per the OED:

  1. with compl. To appear or present itself in a specified character; to be found to be: nearly = to turn out at Phrasal verbs.

    to turn up rough, to become angry or quarrelsome (cf. to cut up rough at cut v. Phrasal verbs).

    to turn up trumps, to turn out favourably (see trump n.² 2).

To turn up trumps meaning to turn out well or successfully has been around since the 1500s. You can find plenty of examples of it in Google Books (although you need to discard the instances talking about card games).

The three citations for to turn up X that the OED provides shows you that the sense here really is nearly equal to that of to turn out to be X:

  • 1756   Monitor No. 39. I. 374   A great deal of waste land and timber.., which by care and cultivation, must in time turn up a great thing.
  • 1831   Examiner 534/1   A lottery ticket which has turned up a prize.
  • 1872   Judy 29 May 59/2 (Farmer)   Have the ornaments [= handcuffs] handy, in case he should turn up rough.

So to turn out X really means to turn out to be X. It doesn’t mean that it showed up.

to take missing

I have not been able to uncover any documentation or examples of to take missing in the sense of to go missing. That suggests this sense may be a regional one restricted to a small corner of the anglosphere and little known without.

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    Excellent discussion. It's understandable that people might find "turn up missing" a bit jarring at first encounter, but I'll bet that very few of them would echo the White King's response to Alice's remark, "I see nobody on the road": "I only wish I had such eyes ... To be able to see nobody! And at that distance too! Why it's as much as I can do to see real people, by this light." – Sven Yargs Jul 8 '18 at 19:54

Because tchrist's answer effectively covers the broader questions asked here, I want to focus on the specific phrase "turn up missing." That the expression has been around for the better part of two centuries is evident from this Ngram chart plotting the frequency of occurrence of "turn up missing" (blue line), "turns up missing" (red line), and "turned up missing" (green line) for the period 1800–2005:

This is not the chart of an expression that is heading toward eclipse.

Among the earliest notices of the expression in a reference work is this one in John Farmer, Americanisms—Old & New (1889), in an entry for missing:

MISSING. — AMONG THE MISSING.—Absent ; (and sometimes) killed. A quaint perversion of language characterizes a variant of this phrase — to turn up missing. [Relevant example:] Antonio was not only lazy but he was vicious, jealous, and in some of his mad moments he had often threatened to kill Marie. Finally Marie TURNED UP MISSING, and she was no longer seen about the cabin of the half-breed. — Missouri Republican, February 24, 1888

A Google Books search turns up an earliest confirmable match for the phrase from "European and North American Railroad," in American Railroad Journal (May 10, 1851):

He [John Howe, of the Government of Nova Scotia] pleads most eloquently the past loyalty of Nova Scotia, which, like a dutiful child, has received no rewards for good conduct, because in no danger of going astray ; while Canada, like the prodigal son, had received the fatted calf, though she had spent millions of the paternal estate in her riot-ous proceedings. He says that the loyalty of Nova Scotia has been without a flaw ; but intimates, that he will not promise that she may not be led to do something dreadful, unless properly restrained. That she cannot get on much longer in the old way—that something must be done, or all this loyalty may soon turn up missing. He tries in one part of his argument to convince Lord Grey that John Bull and Brother Jonathan never will set their horses together.

And from Philip Paxton, A Stray Yankee in Texas (1853):

Among the limited number of planters that then raised cotton, a little money was sometimes to be found, if their store bill did not overrun their crops ; but with the stock-raisers who occupied all the prairie-coast country, not one in ten could boast of a dollar. Their circulating medium possessed locomotive powers, and circulated upon its own legs. It consisted simply and solely of cows and calves. We have all heard of riches taking wings to themselves and flying away. Their wealth often walked off upon four feet, and when most needed, was very apt to turn up missing.

An Elephind search, meanwhile, turns up an even earlier instance from "California," in the [Houston] Telegraph and Texas Register (August 20, 1845):

We would advise Uncle Sam to take possession of the remainder of the Mexican territory, while it is yet time, to secure the payment of the indemnity due to American citizens. We say while it is yet time, because when once Great Britain has obtained a foothold, the limits of the Californias will not restrain her; nor will it be long before her philanthropic disposition will lead her to extend her protecting aegis over adjoining territories, and to thrust her blessings of civilization and "British liberty" down the throats of the semi-savage Indians of Mexico, even at the point of the bayonet[.] If a Mexican State or two were annexed to the United States every time an instalment of the indemnity turned up missing, it might at least have the good effect of inducing some exertions to meet the payments in future.

The earliest instance of "turn up missing" in a British Newspaper Archive search is from an unspecified item in the [Londonderry, Northern Ireland] Coleraine Chronicle (September 16, 1854) [combined snippets]:

On this occasion the ship displayed no light, and the superstitious fishermen imagined she might be one of Davy Jones fleet. Next morning Jemmy C. turned up missing, and the Petrel, (the name of the boat he had taken out to the ship,) was washed ashore, it was the general opinion he went to Davy Jones’ locker.

And the next earliest instance is from "Latest from America," evidently a letter or report from a correspondent in the United States, in the Sheffield [England] Independent (June 21, 1862) [combined snippets]:

We bear through a private channel in which we confide, that the which we confide, that the Unionists of Texas will soon be heard from. We understand that their arrangements for for restoring their State to the Union have been quietly matured, and that they have ere this thrown the old flag to the breeze, under the lead of General Sam. Houston. Though we wish the Kansas expedition southward, planned and organised last winter, had been prosecuted, we cherish strong hopes that the rebels of Texas will soon turn up missing, and that old Sam and Uncle Sam will have possession of the State. We await further tidings with lively interest.

Since a rash of instances of "turn up missing" turned up present in the middle 1850s (and continued thereafter) in the United States, it seems likely that John Farmer was correct in claiming that the expression was originally "an Americanism."

It is hard to say, however, whether the phrase's earliest users shared the OED's understanding of the phrasal verb "to turn up" as meaning "To appear or present itself in a specified character; to be found to be" (as cited in tchrist's answer) or whether they embraced its surface paradox (as I think Philip Paxton probably did) or whether they simply didn't notice the superficial contradiction at all.

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