March 16, 2008

Rings and circles

A few days ago Mark Liberman pointed out that the OED lacks an entry for the 'crime ring' sense of ring, though he found cites for it back to 1904 (all American), notably for drug ring and prostitution ring, and though the OED does have subentries for related specific (and older) senses of ring (economic rings, in particular price-fixing rings; political rings, like Tammany; and espionage rings).  All these uses for associations of people are negative in tone.

The noun circle referring to associations of people is based on the same metaphor -- but this time the connotation is neutral or positive.  (The OED's cites go back to 1646, and come from both British and American sources.)

American criminal ring is in the news thanks to Eliot Spitzer's connection to what has been referred to as a "prostitution ring" (sometimes "high-class prostitution ring"); the term in the trade for this form of prostitution is the more demure and much less dramatic "escort agency" or "escort service".  There are prostitution rings, drug rings, smuggling rings, racketeering rings, bootlegging rings, blackmail rings, extortion rings, kidnapping rings, robbery rings, murder rings, abortion rings, and so on, including generic crime rings.  On screen you can find the 1938 Crime Ring and the 1941 Ellery Queen and the Murder Ring, and probably others.

On the positive side, there's the webring (or web ring).  In the words of the Wikipedia, this is "a collection of websites from around the Internet joined together in a circular structure"; OED draft addition February 2004 for web ring, "a number of web sites with related content, offering links to one another in such a way that a person may view each of them in turn rather than repeatedly going back to a single referring site".  But that's not an association of people; ring used for collections of people, and with no reference to location in a circle, is heavily negative in tone.

Compare circle.  The relevant OED subentry is:

21. a. A number of persons united by acquaintance, common sentiments, interests, etc.; a 'set' or coterie; a class or division of society, consisting of persons who associate together.

with cites beginning with Sir Thomas Browne in 1646, including references to "a polite circle", "the circle of one's acquaintance", "a wide circle of friends and admirers", "their domestic circle" (the obligatory Jane Austen citation), belonging to "the first circles" (Austen again), "one's immediate circle", "the circles in which he moved", and "political, social, and literary circles".  These are all neutral or positive in tone.

The difference in connotation between ring and circle shows up in the Google webhits for combinations of these nouns with preceding crime/criminal (negative) and social (neutral or positive).


The difference in connotation here looks roughly similar to the difference between gang (negative) and band (neutral or positive): gang of thieves, band of brothers, etc.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at March 16, 2008 11:27 AM