We have issues around this turn of phrase

Has ‘around’ started elbowing ‘about’ out of the conversation?

John Nordell
One reader used the word 'around' in a way similar to 'a conversation around the punch bowl.' Is 'around' started replacing 'about' in conversation?

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.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

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