Reflections on about and around

Catherine’s spending Bastille Day getting back to the US; I’ll be spending it visiting Gettysburg. One of our traveling companions has equipped us with copies of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War. I finished it yesterday, and am now primed as can be for the theater of war and the dramatis personae: from Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top; from Pickett to Chamberlain.

The book was a quick read, but was not without its distractions. The primary culprit was a preposition. Writing in the early 1970s, author Michael Shaara appears to be emulating the style of the previous century. Accordingly, the various generals and captains would “think on” the situation, “brood on” the best course of action, and “worry on” what would happen next. Oh, what a contemplative age that was! Nowadays, tellingly, we no longer think on things, let alone brood on them or worry on them. Would that that were otherwise!

But with a moment’s linguistic experimentation, I realized that there’s no obvious difference between thinking on things and thinking about them. What’s shifted, instead, are prepositions. In the arena of cognitive verbs, “about” has defeated “on.”

More recently, though, it’s “about” that’s under attack. For decades, fewer and fewer of us have looked about the fields and seen dandelions all about us; instead, we look around them and see dandelions all around us. But now the conquest of “about” by “around” has advanced from the spatial to the conversational arena. Today’s Americans are gradually ceasing to have conversations about things, or to examine issues about important topics; instead, we’re having more and more conversations around things: in particular, conversations around issues around particular topics.

So stay tuned: we may at some point now longer think about anything at all, but, instead, think only around things.

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