What’s this about?
- The preposition around seems to be on the increase, often where, supposedly, about might have been used in the past;
- Some people loathe it;
- How recent is this use?
- Does it really always replace about, or is it different?
- How frequent is it?
- What objective evidence is there?
Recently, a correspondent, clearly in some linguistic distress, wrote to me about around, “the” – in her words – “new all-purpose preposition”. Her email was headed drolly “around around”. I quote some of it (underlining added).
“I wanted to write to share my pain at the creeping use of around and ask your opinion of how it could possibly have crept so far and so fast. While five years ago or so it was restricted to the speech of a certain type of person (politicians, civil servants etc), I’m now hearing it everywhere and even seeing it written down more and more, including in the headlines of supposedly serious newspapers.”
In case, gentle reader, you are unaware of the use of around being alluded to, it is where, previously, most people would have used about. My correspondent continues:
“I find it hard to understand is how it has slipped so smoothly into people’s speech. To me, ‘a story about’ is a phrase I learnt when I was little and I’d find it hard to change to “a story around” without putting serious thought into changing my natural way of speaking (and I think about language a lot).”
Someone unkinder than me (I?) might jibe that perhaps the wrong kind of thinking is going on. I digress.
“I find it so upsetting that the wide variety of prepositions we’ve used for years has been replaced by this jarring interloper that kicks me in the teeth every time I hear it.
I know I’m being slightly overdramatic but I find it all so frustrating. I am something of a pedantic linguist but I love new, genuine changes that I think enrich the language (the sort of slang heard on The Wire). I detest the glibness and impoverishing effect on language of around.”
In Michael Winner mode, I might be tempted to say “Calm down, dear!” (Drat, I’ve just unwittingly revealed the gender of my correspondent and simultaneously outed myself as a chauvinist pig. So be it.)
That email raises several issues. I will deal only with the language (briefly), the question of newness, the question of frequency, and what I shall call “the wince factor”.
When I started work on my revision of Fowler a few years back, I originally intended to include around with its continual and seemingly unstoppable quest for Lebensraum. I decided not to, for several reasons; however, were another revision to happen, I would feel obliged to put it in. And I would have to do so because my correspondent – and I know she is not alone – shows all the signs of emotional distress that afflict certain people – me included – when faced with a usage they intensely dislike. Not being a psychologist, I cannot comment on how such distress relates to other psychological phenomena. But the language is typical of the overwrought phrases that people use when decrying what they see as solecism: “share my pain”, “jarring interloper”, “kicks me in the teeth”. From this, and from my previous experience of this kind of complaint, it is clear that there is a specific subgenre of “language grousing” one of whose characteristics is physical pain metaphors of the most hyperbolic kind.
(As it happens, my email writer did not acknowledge my lengthy reply, which might suggest that the outburst was a way of letting off steam. That might explain the extreme language.)
As for how my correspondent distinguishes between “new, genuine” changes and those affected by “glibness” or “an impoverishing effect”, the answer must surely be “Because I say so”. It is stating the obvious to say that such distinctions are an entirely subjective matter: your “glib” or “impoverishing” word or phrase may be my metaphor of choice.
Anyway, let’s draw a line under that aspect and move on. (Now, there’s a couple of “glib” phrases.)
How recent is this use of around?
Arnold Zwicky identified a phenomenon he dubbed the “recency illusion”, namely “the belief that things you have noticed only recently are in fact recent”. My correspondent suggests that around to mean “about” has crept in and assumed a stranglehold over the last five years. It is undoubtedly older than that (and see also later on). In my mind, it is inextricably welded to the preceding noun issues, and I recall mentally noting this collocation issues around well over a decade ago, when it struck me as the jargon of the mealy-mouthed.
As regards the newness of this use of around = “about”, it is worth noting that the very recently revised OED entry (March 2016) includes a meaning category (B. II 11) defined as “In reference or relation to; concerning, about”, whereas the 2nd edition 1989 entry did not. This shows that the OED lexicographers have decided it is a “thing.”
Now, I first noticed this issues around collocation as an irritating – to my sensibility, anyway – linguistic tic of academics, social workers, hacks and bien-pensant politicians. Google Ngrams shows its vertiginous ascent in that collocation quite clearly. (The texts in which it occurs are, Google confirms, indeed of the kind I have just mentioned.) What is noticeable, though, is that its irresistible rise and rise is not that recent. It is true that between 1980 and 2000 Google shows it rocketing up (its frequency in occurrences per million words goes up almost fourfold), but it had started its ascent well before that, roughly trebling between 1960 and 1980.
Google Ngrams also shows the kinds of noun issues around goes with. Many are the sort of easily parodied hot-button issues that cause sharp intakes of breath among the societally anxious, such as gender, sexuality, race, women, power, and sex.
tbc very soon…