A reader has written in to take issue with the way a woman I quoted in a recent column expressed herself. The subject was the flow of words to which affluent parents subject their children but poorer parents do not. The woman in question spoke of “fluid conversations around shared rituals and objects” within a family.
Dear Reader observes that she has heard the “new golden-boy Around used in place of other prepositions over the last year” and wonders whether “there is a profound and compelling reason why so many people nowadays are unwilling to commit to what they are, in fact, talking About.”
Hmm. Interesting observation. In the instance at hand, I’m inclined to cut the woman quoted some slack. Her usage was relatively concrete, roughly analogous to “conversation around the punch bowl”; who would quibble with that?
But Dear Reader’s complaint makes some sense if about is understood to mean “on the subject of” or “focused on” (“This book is about butterflies”), and “around” is used to signify more loosely “related to” or “tangential to.” That distinction can be widely observed around us. And the “tangential” around may be construed as signifying a certain distance, if not lack of “commitment.”
(Tangential, by the way, is from Latin, rooted in the idea of “touching,” which ought to mean it refers to something directly relevant to something else. The word has come to mean, though, that which only just touches something else, like the line touching a circle at only one point. But I digress.)
Etymologically, about springs from that same idea of “outside but encircling” as does around. The latter, rare before 1600, came into English with the Norman Conquest and has largely replaced that sense of about.
Dear Reader astutely observes that usurping around “most often takes over in discussions about well, discussions, or questions, dialogues, concerns, or issues.”
Linguists call this “metadiscourse” – talk about talk. A neophyte public speaker following the counsel “Tell them what you’re going to say, tell them, and then tell them what you’ve told them” is using metadiscourse. It can be useful, but it can drive people nuts.
My own issue with issues around is with issues. It can be a useful term for “public topics” – “I always know where my congressman stands on the issues.” But it’s often a euphemism for “serious problems.”
Here’s a sentence ripped from the news feed the other day: “The [Irish] Defence Minister Simon Coveney has admitted there is an issue around low pay for personnel in the forces, and that he plans to review it.”
In a perfect world of plain speaking, this sentence would read, “The Defence Minister Simon Coveney has admitted that soldiers aren’t paid enough and promises to raise their wages.” Alas, we may not have reached that perfect world.