Oral Hygiene Queen

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Location: Midwest, United States

I floss daily, brush after every meal, and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My Feelings Around the Abuse of "Around"

Have you noticed how people abuse the word "around" lately? It's a preposition that despite its roundness and even (in some contexts) roundaboutness is actually quite straightforward. "Around" – it can mean "surrounding," "in the vicinity of," or "approximately." But certain people, especially liberally educated middle-class people with a touchy-feely bent, use it in a way that sets my teeth on edge. For example "I have issues around male authority" or "I'm trying to respect her feelings around competition." Blargh! You mean "issues with male authority"? You mean "feelings about competition"? Why replace these perfectly good prepositions with "around," making everything sort of mealy-mouthed and approximate? It drives me nuts.

I first noticed this creeping misuse of "around" when a couple of my friends and family members began taking seminars with the Landmark Forum. I don't know much about the Forum, as insiders call it, but it struck me as a scientology-lite sort of self-empowerment program. It helped my loved ones feel more in control of their lives, but also seemed to me like some creepy New-Age pyramid scheme. All three of the people I knew who got involved in the forum began using the phrase "issues around" to a distressing degree, along with other linguistic debasements that I found it hard to keep a straight face for (such as "If you don't like your teacher, why don't you create liking your teacher?" "I found X, Y, or Z situation very confronting," and "I feel complete with X, Y, or Z situation.")

In the past few years, however, the use of "around" in place of a more straightforward and natural-sounding preposition has crept beyond Forum-speak and into the vocabularies of more and more people who feel it's important to – how shall I say? – "confront issues." I myself like to confront issues from time to time, but I prefer to do it in plain language, which is both aesthetically more satisfying than mealy-mouthed New-Age speak and ideally helps keep the bullshit level at a minimum.

Today I opened the most recent issue of The New York Times Magazine to find an interview with Sandra Fluke, the woman whose testimony before Congress regarding Georgetown University's refusal to cover contraception in its student insurance plans inspired Rush Limbaugh to call her a "slut," etc. Ms. Fluke, usually an articulate and direct person, describes in this interview her reasons for deciding to attend Georgetown Law: "They offered me a scholarship, they have the best public-interest law program that I saw, and they have some really fabulous faculty around feminist jurisprudence."

This is perhaps the most egregious example of the sloppy misuse of "around" that I'm kvetching about here. (Or am I kvetching around its misuse? Hm.) What does this mean? I envision law professors sidling up to feminist jurisprudence and sort of standing near it in a politely approving way. Certainly they're not specializing in feminist jurisprudence, or doing anything as straightforward as teaching it. While this sort of "around"-ing usually just makes me wince, this one made me writhe.

In general I'm not a big crusader for preserving traditional usage rules that are morphing through popular use, believing that the way the majority of English users use English makes a given usage correct (or at least one correct option among several). But in this case, preserving the basic decency of the word "around" will become a cause for me as a teacher, joining the serial comma and the integrity of the word "literally" as meaning "the opposite of figuratively" as matters I'm willing to go into battle for, chalk held high.