March 14, 2008

Cognitive therapy for word rage

Paul Quirk wrote:

Perhaps just because I have the dispositions of a prescriptivist, the fairly recent hijacking of "around" to mean "about" or "concerning" drives me nuts. This seems to be an academic politics or social activist sort of thing; I don't notice it among business people (although I don't have much contact) or even straight academics. Academics who set up conferences or workshops use it once every minute. The young left-wing political theorists in my department use it.

A bit of correspondence verified that Paul is not upset about the use of around to as a preposition meaning "at approximately", as in "around 3:00", though the OED suggests that this is an Americanism originating in the late 19th century. Rather, he's bothered by cases like these, where around means something like "in connection with the topic of" (emphasis added):

Laura Sinagra, "In Ethical Culture's Venerable Halls, Music Camp in Riot Grrl Tradition", NYT 2005:

At an "image and identity" workshop, a women's studies instructor, Ingrid Dahl, and a drummer and counselor from Portland, Winner Bell, led a discussion around new vocabulary words like "dichotomy," "institutionalization" and "oppression" (setting aside, for the time being, "percussion").

Brown University press release, "Sheldon Whitehouse to Deliver Speech on Global Climate Change", 1/22/2008:

The event is free and open to the public. The speech will serve as a kick-off for the University's involvement in Focus the Nation, a national event organized around the issue of global warming and involving a coalition of more than 1,000 colleges, universities and high schools around the country.

Paul explains:

I think this is an unfortunate development, losing distinct meanings of these words.

I don't have anything interesting to say about it, other than this griping, and don't know if it holds any interest for LL.

Well, we're always interested in documenting new examples of the human urge to express shared annoyance with perceived misuse of language (see e.g. "The social psychology of linguistic naming and shaming", 2/27/2007; "The ecology of peevology", 7/26/2007; "The liturgy of lost causes", 2/18/2008).

And Paul gives one of the commoner justifications for such annoyance, namely that "distinct meanings of these words" are being lost. With respect, though, I suggest that this is probably more of a rationalization than a reason. That is, the annoyance comes first and the reasoning comes second.

In any case, the usage in question seems to be a rather limited extension of the already extensive metaphorical transfer from spatial relations to topical ones. The preposition about made a more complete version of this move during the development of middle English (if not before) -- the OED has

7. a. Abstract connexion: Touching, concerning; in the matter of, in reference or regard to. The regular preposition employed to define the subject-matter of verbal activity, as in to speak, think, ask, dream, hear, know about; to be sorry, pleased, perplexed about; to give orders, instructions, information about; to form plans, have doubts, feel sure about.

1230 Ancren Riwle 344 Hu hire stont abuten vleschliche tentaciuns, {ygh}if heo ham haue{edh}. c1449 PECOCK Repr. I. xix. (Skeat, Specim. 51) Defautis doon aboute ymagis & pilgrimagis ben myche li{ygh}ter & esier to be amendid. 1590 SHAKES. Two Gent. III. i. 2 We haue some secrets to confer about. 1596 —— Merch. V. I. iii. 109 In the Ryalto you haue rated me About my monies and my vsances. 1599 —— (Title) Much Adoe about Nothing. 1611 BIBLE Lev. vi. 5 All that about which hee hath sworne falsly. 1777 HUME Ess. & Treat. I. 193 Shall we be indifferent about what happens? 1854 KINGSLEY Alexandria ii. 50 It is better to know one thing than to know about ten thousand things. 1855 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. IV. 13 Twenty governments, divided by quarrels about precedence, quarrels about territory, quarrels about trade, quarrels about religion.

But we should note that around is not yet available for most of these uses. I bet that not even the young left-wing political theorists in Paul's department are young enough or left enough to speak, think, ask, dream, hear, or know around (things), nor to be sorry, pleased, or perplexed around (things). No edgy young lyricist, as far as I know, is likely to update Sam Cooke's "Don't know much about history" to "Don't know much around history".

Still, it's hard to keep a good metaphor down. For around, Robert Kelly made the connection of ideas to connection in space explicit in a 1975 poem ("The Loom"):

480 ... the table
481 set,
482 Third Surface
483 between the surfaces of our minds
484 where the whole
485 mystery of talk
486 bounds & needs
487 the bounce. The shared
488 preoccupation. I'm no friend
489 of heart-to-hearts; for heart
490 to speak to heart you need
491 a table. A body. A body
492 of work. A trade. A box
493 of swiftian tools.

494 The Third
495 is magic---
496 it unlocks the heart.
497 Heart to heart is dumb squish.
498 We need
499 the artifice of order, something
500 to talk around,
501 an obstacle. A stump.

The OED gives a number of equally explicit, if less poetic, examples of transfer from spatial organization to topical organization, for example:

1999 E. NIJENHUIS & O. VAN DER HART in J. Goodwin & R. Attias Splintered Reflections I. iv. 109 Somnambulistic states are..organized around one single fixed idea (monoideism) or around a limited set of related fixed ideas (polyideism).

I hope and trust that Paul is not yet annoyed: it would be hard to talk about ideas if all figurative use of spatial language were forbidden. But at a certain point, such figurative uses start to overlap with one meaning of the preposition about -- whose figurative use in this connection was conventionalized half a millennium ago. From the OED again:

2000 Big Issue 10 Apr. 46/2 With regards to the debate around 'economic migrants' vs 'genuine' asylum seekers..a further aspect of British history should be acknowledged.

As far as I can tell, the extension of around into this conceptual space is still mostly a living metaphor, though perhaps a few lexical frames such as "organized around" and "discussion around" are becoming conventionalized. Here's some evidence.

There are lots of examples of phrases like "organize a conference|workshop around" -- Google finds 241, compared to 1,870 for "organize a conference|workshop about". But no one on the web has yet been moved to ask "What is this conference around?", though 2,770 pages ask "What is this conference about?"

The same is true for the questions "What is this (discussion|article|nonsense|passage|weblog|leaflet|fuss) around?"  Amazingly, none of the trillions of web pages out there has thought to organize even one question around this potential meaning of around.

What we find, instead, is a modest number of examples based on the metaphor of organizing or structuring a debate, discussion, conference, workshop, event, etc., around one or more ideas or questions. The verb -- organize or structure or whatever -- may sometimes be implicit, and in these cases we might express a similar idea with about instead of around. Thus "the debate around 'economic migrants' vs 'genuine' asylum seekers" might instead have been "the debate about 'economic migrants' vs 'genuine' asylum seekers".

However, this is not the same as "hijacking 'around' to mean 'about' or 'concerning'". And I don't see that this usage -- granting for purposes of discussion that it has recently become more common -- has created any significant ambiguity, or caused any loss of distinct word meanings.

I'm also not convinced that this usage is an "academic politics or social activist sort of thing".

Thus in a letter to the Financial Times dated Feb. 14, 2008, Mr. Loughlin Hickey, the "Global Head of Tax" for KPMG -- certainly not an academic, and probably not a left-wing activist -- wrote:

Discussion around the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's international report on tax planning last month included frequent expressions of concern on the apparent disengagement of policymakers in many jurisdictions from the practical effects of their decisions.

And on the political right, we can cite Mark Hemingway, "Meet the New Frosts, Same as the Old Frosts", NRO Online, 10/16/2007:

While the debate around the Frost family at least initially centered around their relative wealth, the issue really at hand is one of bad behavior.

Though I don't have any comparative counts, I can say that it's trivial to find dozens of similar examples on various business-oriented and politically-conservative sites. Why might Paul think that the use of around with concepts like discussion or debate is "an academic politics or social activist sort of thing"? Without speculating as to his particular psychodynamics, I can cite a reaction that I've frequently observed in myself, and even more frequently seen in others. The process is nicely illustrated in this recent xkcd cartoon:

Overall, I don't mean to invalidate Paul's belief that people he dislikes are doing something bad to the language that he loves. Rather, I invite him to engage these feelings in a sort of cognitive therapy.

What is really happening to the English language in these cases? Who is really doing it? As a result of looking into these questions carefully, he may find himself less nuts as well as better informed.

[Update -- Ewan Dunbar writes:

Regarding 'around' as 'about' - I wonder if Prof. Quirk would have the same reaction to 'surrounding'? My first impression is that this is restricted to things having to do with incongruence in some sense ("History of the Debate Surrounding the 2004 Presidential Election", "15 Anomalies Surrounding Death of Nick Berg," "Myths and misunderstandings surrounding SOAP") though some of the uses Google turns up ("The Culture Surrounding Google", "A Timeline Surrounding September 11th") don't quite fit. At any rate, I am never surprised by this "surround" and don't get a strong sense of any vivid imagery when I hear it, at least not under the first usage. It's not clear what that means, but it seems to be "conventionalized" in some vague sense. The question test, at least for "debate" and "controversy," fails: the only example of do-support I can find with "controversy/debate surrounding" is "... so did the controversy surrounding it." It also helps me deal with "around" when used in the sense described by Quirk: I don't find it unusual when I can substitute "surrounding", but I do when I can only substitute "about", and I have occasionally heard this latter use.


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 14, 2008 06:39 AM