on accident

Fri Jan 14 15:35:08 UTC 2000

This morning an AP story on the Simpsons, reprinted in our student newspaper, contained the following description of Maggie Simpson:  "Perpetual infant best known for shooting Monty Burns, on accident."

I had first heard the phrase "on accident" in the early '80s from my son, then 12 or so.  It struck me then as formed on the analogy of "on purpose", (although why that wouldn't have change to "by purpose" on analogy to "by accident" I can't imagine).  Today was the first time I'd seen it in print, and the timing was perfect since I was talking to my HEL class today about analogic change.  The students in the class are all Midwestern, white, and in their early twenties.  I asked how many would normally say "on accident" and nearly every hand went up,  About 3/4 of them said they would never say "by accident" and some weren't even familiar with it.  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (1989) has entries for "accidentally" and "on" but not "on accident."  I've just done a search of the ADS-L archives for the phrase and didn't come up with anything.

On the basis of my limited experience, then, I'd guess that the change started in the Midwest (we moved to Indiana from Atlanta in 1980 and my children didn't say "on accident" before that) in the late 70s to early 80s and has pretty much taken over in this population.

Does anyone know of other references to the phrase, its sources and its spread?

Herb Stahlke

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