Lexicon Valley

What’s Going On Around “Around”? New Uses of Old Prepositions.

Around and surrounding have more evocative imagery than plain about, although this bison doesn’t seem to appreciate it. 

Wikimedia Commons

Prepositions are notoriously unstable. That is, the particular term used in a given expression is subject to long-term change in a process I call “preposition creep.” In recent years, for example, common usage has shifted from enamored of to enamored with, obsessed by to obsessed with, and excited about to excited for. Such shifts may seem arbitrary, but a closer look often suggests an explanation.

So it is with the longstanding preposition creep from about to around. Both those words are used in a host of contexts; the case I’m referring to is when they mean “concerning” or “having to do with,” specifically when following nouns like “discussions” or “questions” or “issues.” About is a more traditional choice. I first became aware of the other in about 1987, when I heard a psychologist at a party say something like, “There’ve been a lot of good studies around weight issues.” I mentioned it on the drive home and my wife, who then worked in a university’s student-life division, said, “They use that word a lot in the helping professions.”

At the time, I wasn’t even aware that “the helping professions” were a thing, but sure enough, they were, and also sure enough, over the years, I noticed around popping up among specialists in counseling, education, medicine, and the like. A Google Ngram Viewer chart shows that the word started to get popular in about 1965 and has been on the upswing ever since.

An example of the helping-professions kind of thing is this quote from Lillian B. Rubin’s 1976 book Worlds of Pain: “For all women, the issues around being a ‘working mother’ are complex, but there are some special ones among the working class that make it both harder and easier for women to leave their homes to work.’

You can see why around would emerge and then gain ground on about and the other alternatives, like regarding and having to do with. They are static and one-dimensional, while around gives a nice tangible sense of concerns bearing on all different sides of the topic at hand. It also, as Gill Francis has observed in the Macmillan Dictionary blog, “gives the impression of an abstract, non-committal vagueness, a focus on hopes and intentions.” It stands to reason that it would expand beyond the helping professions, noticeably to those founts of rigorous writing and thinking, business, technology, politics, and journalism.

An executive with the social-games company Zynga tells the New York Times: “I tend to give talks around real-world games, designing persuasive technology and electronics.” PC World reports: “Google said it has received many questions around Glass’ availability outside the U.S.” The Portland Mercury blog says, “She wouldn’t say how far those discussions went, but she made clear there are no ongoing talks around bike share.”

Issues around also followed the model of an older expression, this one involving a verb: centers around. In the 19th century, it was at least as popular as (the now preferred) centers on, as a post on the Motivated Grammar blog does a good job of showing. However, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage notes that “beginning sometime in the 1920s” centers around was “attacked as illogical,” the attacks reaching a climax in the work of famed grammar maven Theodore Bernstein. Merriam-Webster notes, however, that it is no less logical than centers on, and concludes (in a formulation that applies to many usage issues): “questionable or not, logic is not the point. Center around is a standard idiom.”

Getting back to issues/talks/questions around, it’s attractive because it implies a useful physical metaphor. Another word, one that adds to the metaphor a sense of movement and—sometimes—urgency, would seem to be even better. That word is “surrounding,” which, you might say, provides its own GIF. My sense that it’s having its moment was supported by a search on Google News, which produced the following, all posted in the last three hours (as I write):

  • “The public is getting its first look at details surrounding trains loaded with volatile crude oil that travel through Virginia.” (WVEC.com)
  • “Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald isn’t commenting on issues surrounding his choice for county treasurer.” (Plain Dealer)
  • “NHL Rumors: Latest Gossip Surrounding Marian Gaborik, Evander Kane and More” (headline in Bleacher Report)
  • “Hundreds run to help end stigma surrounding mental health” (headline in the Marshfield, Wisconsin, News Herald)

Phrases from these headlines, like “details surrounding,” “stigma surrounding,” and “gossip surrounding,” have all increased sharply in popularity since the mid-1960s, the exact same time frame as around, which we can see again on Google Ngrams

There’s another reason for the popularity of surrounding. It means the same thing in this context as around, but it’s longer. Thus it fits the pattern of such other vogue substitutions (many of them prepositions) as amongst and amidst for among and amid, within and upon for in and on, a person that instead of a person who, the point is is for the point is, oftentimes for often, and, as a matter of fact, the pronunciation “off-ten” for silent-t “offen.” For some reason, people today seem to want to write and talk for as long as possible, even if the margin is one word, one syllable, one letter, or even one millisecond of airtime.

I don’t want to be part of the problem, so I’ll see you around.