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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.


Anonymous O'Leary said...

Glad someone other than me has noticed this ugly trend. There's at least an argument for using new expressions that are more succinct/efficient than what came before them, but in this case not only is the use of "around" inexact and sloppy, it's often longer to say than "for" or "about".

4:50 AM  
Blogger wumhenry said...

What I don't hear don't bother me, and I haven't heard "around" used this way. Something I hear all the time that bothers the Hell out me is the weaselly, illogical use of "they" in reference to a single person, in craven deference to feminist word-nazi-ism.

5:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brava! "Around" has become the misused, preposterous Swiss Army Knife of prepositions. In complete disregard of every better choice, the speaker leans on this one until it groans. I hear this more than daily from educated professionals with high ambitions and no imaginations. The most amusing example in my experience is the paradoxical "precision around ."

1:15 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

Couldn't agree more! I also think it smacks of inflated corporate jargon, where people "marinate on" an issue before they get to "decisioning." That last one drives me particularly crazy, as a perfectly apt word already exists to describe the process of coming to a conclusion: deciding.

1:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I absolutely despise this kind of misuse of "around". Have business folk always felt a need to misuse the language in ways like this?

12:43 PM  
Blogger Olympiarocks said...

Goodness I am pleased someone else is railing about this pernicious creeping trend. What is WRONG with people? You expressed it brilliantly. I think our duty should be to challenge it whenever we hear it…

And don't get me started on 'to' (as in 'speak TO the slide' - you xxxxx idiot, a slide is an INANIMATE object - it isn't going to reply!!!!!)

8:20 AM  
Blogger Graham Forster said...

And there's me thinking this awful trend came from you Americans who all thought it okay! Glad to see you angry about it like me. The other word being misused in a similar way is "across".

By the way, "issues" does not mean problem or problems. It means topic or subject. You're guilty of this one yourself. Sorry!

11:12 PM  
Blogger E. said...

Hi Graham! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I've got to call in the dictionary to support my use of "issue," which is pretty standard at this point. The dictionary on my MacBook Air tells me that issue, in its noun form "issue" means "1 an important topic or problem for debate or discussion: the issue of global warming | money is not an issue.
• (issues) personal problems or difficulties: a nice guy with a great sense of humor and not too many issues.
• (issues) problems or difficulties, esp. with a service or facility: a small number of users are experiencing connectivity issues..."

The impeccable (albeit American) American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language backs this up: "1a. A point or matter of discussion... b. A matter of public concern... 2a. A problem or difficulty, b. A personal problem..."

7:25 AM  
Blogger Graham Forster said...

Hey, you're correct for American English but British English does not use issue as a synonym for problem. We're both right. Now I know where it comes from. Two countries often divided by a common language.

4:56 PM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Around 35 years ago I heard a colleague (who came from a large corporate environment) use "around" in this manner. I cringed then, and am still cringing now.

10:25 PM  
Blogger Crystal Visions said...

Graham, issues replaced problems when Americans became obsessed with not sounding "negative" - probably around the same time that disabled people became 'differently abled'. I am just hoping that our children will never be asked to solve math issues.

10:37 PM  
Anonymous s.creamcheese said...

Recently, I heard a public official bragging about her recycling committee being "active around food waste". Good grief, what are they? Raccoons? Ants? Maggots?
Another one that drives me crazy is the use of "ask" instead of "question", such as "the ask I would like you to take away from this meeting . . ." Come on!

10:41 PM  
Blogger Clive said...

Yes, couldn't agree more; "sets my teeth on edge" is putting mildly! Here's one I recently heard from a certain James Purnell, who is Head of Radio & Education at the BBC (for crying out loud):

​“One of our big challenges currently is around young audiences. An organisation that appears to have a heteronormative culture is not one that is going to cut ice with them either as a consumer or an employee.”

In addition to the ghastly use of "around", "either as a consumer or an employee" should be "either as consumers or employees" - although of course audiences and employees are not the same thing!
Then there's that awful political correctness: heterosexuality is in fact the norm in everyday life, and the BBC shouldn't be afraid of reflecting that fact. Homosexuality is natural, but it's not "normal" in the sense of being "the norm". Across the world, between about 0.8 & 8% of people are gay. 8% of anything is not the norm. Anyway, sorry - this is not the place. Misuse of "around" drives me up the wall.

3:17 AM  

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