WORDS: Around

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The Independent Online
A SUSSEX gardener had a nasty experience the other day when the lawn he was mowing developed a gaping hole into which he fell, losing consciousness. "When I came to," he said, "the mower was balanced on the hole above my head and I could see the blades still going around." At least that was how he was reported in the Times, and I'm sure there was no cause to doubt it, except that I wonder whether he could really have said that the blades were "going around". (The Daily Telegraph said simply that they were "still whirring".) Some of us down in Sussex tend to prefer the shorter form - "going round" - when we want to talk about things like rotating lawnmower blades.

This use of around is from the States, where it is always proper to say it instead of round, both as an adverb and as a preposition. A Tavernier film of about 1986 was called 'Round Midnight, after the Charlie Parker number - but notice the apostrophe, which puts the word into the same informal class as 'bout in "'bout time, pardner" and suchlike cowhand talk. In the States, it seems, saying "round" when you mean "around" may be thought kinda folksy.

And I suppose the same thing started to happen here, but the other way round, among people who thought that if they said "the other way around" they might, for half a second, be mistaken for John Wayne. Anyway, the habit is well entrenched in our English newspapers, though not even the Times said that the unconscious gardener "came around" after his ordeal.

I'm rather sorry that round and around have become confused, because they used to mean different things, at any rate in Britain, and we've lost the distinction. Until recent times, a detective would look around an empty house, then go round, rather than around, the outside. If you decided, say, to explore a small island, you might walk around it but you sailed round it in a boat. Now, if someone asks you "Would you like to go around the island?" you can't be sure whether to put on the brogues or the seaboots.

It's not clear when the Americans began using around in the sense that our Sussex gardener used it. Webster's 1961 dictionary offered "revolving on an axis" as a definition for either version. His 1828 dictionary had defined round as meaning "on every side" but added: "In this sense around is much used."

However, we shouldn't go blaming the Americans. Around was being used by Jane Austen (who admittedly sometimes got such things wrong) in the American sense some few years before Webster produced his first edition. This was when Emma was scheming to get Harriet off with Mr Elton; the three had been walking together, and she tried to fall back but "they both looked around and she was obliged to join them". We can forget the idea of the New World corrupting the language of the Old, at least this time (a)round. Sometimes it is we who have moved on while the Americans have kept the forms that went with the Pilgrim Fathers - like "gotten" rather than "got".