Table 3

Meanings and uses of ‘freak accident’

Meanings conveyed definitionSource and event contextIllustrative quotes
In the context of describing how an event would not have been predicted or expected given prior experiences or expectations about the situation
  • NYT 6/2/2007: Death of a dancer from Streb Extreme Action troupe

“It was a freak accident”, said the company's founder, Elizabeth Streb. “It was one of our more benign pieces, if there is such a thing. She just was in a sense too close to the ground to save the manner she was falling”.
Employed as part of an account of an event as unexplainable or an ongoing mystery.
  • AP 9/6/2006: A child in an amusement park hit by a stray bullet, assumed shot from outside of park

‘It's still being investigated, but I'm pretty sure that it is going to wind up being a freak accident’.
To give priority to the ‘freakish’ nature of the injury sustained
  • PI 4/6/2008: Baseball player's hand injury

‘Navarro was heading into the dugout after the second inning and missed a step on his way to the bench, according to the Associated Press. OK, been there, done that. To brace his fall, Navarro reached for something to grab hold of and cut open his hand on the netting designed to protect players from foul balls. It was not designed, however, to protect against clumsiness. “I almost threw up when I saw it”, said Navarro’.
To convey a sense of an event being extremely unusual. An event is ‘freakish’ because it occurs so infrequently
  • AP 2/28/2007: Basketball injury that will keep the player out for approximately a year

‘“He came down on the leg without any contact with anybody. It's a freak accident, that's for sure”, said Daly, who had rarely seen anything similar in 24 years of practice’.
Expressing injury severity. The expression conveys rarity or unpredictability of the event's outcome rather than the event itself
  • AP 9/4/2009: Tennis player's broken neck from running into a net post

‘Blake has advanced to at least the third round of the US Open in his last seven appearances, he missed 2004 after breaking his neck in a freak accident when he ran into a net post but has yet to get past the quarterfinals of any major’.
Uses of expression definition
Minimisation of event
To suggest that this type of event is not worth attending to, therefore negating any need for an analysis of what went wrong and potential prevention mechanisms
  • AP 7/14/2009: Boxer explaining a rib injury

‘Mayweather (39–0, 25 KOs) insists that he was injured in a ‘freak accident’ in training, but won't say much else. “Believe me, it wasn't a small guy that done it, but it didn't come from sparring”, Mayweather said. “When it happened, I tried to work through it. I was sparring for a while, but then it happened again”. I said, “You know, I can't try to be a superhero. I've got to take time off and let it heal. I'd never tell exactly what happened. I just had a rib injury”’.
Deflect responsibility (from injured person)
To deflect responsibility from one or more stakeholders in the injury event. Such deflection relies on many of the ‘meaning’ concepts outlined above (that an event is unpredictable, rare and also unexplainable).
  • AP 3/27/2008: Injury to a football player with a reputation for ‘bad’ behaviour that will keep him out of play for 4 months

  • AP 6/4/2008: The return of pitcher to the minor leagues after many prior injuries

  • ‘Marshall said he understands that the public might be suspicious of his explanation, figuring instead that he got hurt in a street fight or in a bar room altercation. But he swore that it was just a freak accident … “It was just horse playing, what brothers do”. Marshall said. “We're adults, I just turned 24 on Sunday. He's 25. He's my brother. I love him to death. We were just playing around like usual”’.

  • ‘Zumaya was expected to be a key part of the Detroit bull pen in 2008 but underwent shoulder surgery after a freak accident during the off season. With wildfires threatening his home in Chula Vista, Calif, Zumaya was hurriedly removing treasured items from the attic. Unaware he was holding two boxes above his head at once, the top one slid off and slammed into his pitching shoulder’.

Deflect responsibility (from owner/manager)
  • AP 11/19/2007:

  • AP 11/25/2005:

  • Sisters injured by an escaped parade balloon

  • Headline '1 dead, about 30 hurt in South Carolina bus crash; bus company calls it ‘freak accident’.

  • ‘The family won't sue because it was 'a freak accident’ and “accidents just happen”, he said' (father quoted)

Deflect responsibility (from another person involved)
  • NYT 7/5/2007: Baby drowning in bath after being left with a toddler to supervise

‘“I thought maybe it was a freak accident”, he said. “Maybe the baby slipped under the water for a minute”’. (Quote from neighbour who tried to revive the baby)
Deny intent
To convey a lack of intent. Used in relation to someone who might be held responsible—in some cases the injured person
  • PI 10/30/2007: NHL player suspended for hitting a player during play and causing concussion and a broken nose

‘I am a little on the disappointment side. I think Mr. Campbell is in a tough situation on making this decision in regards to the last couple of incidents involving the Flyers. I think that he saw my point of view where this was not intentional. This was just a freak accident which unfortunately resulted in injury’.