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16 Comments

  • In geometry, a line is infinitely long and has zero width. Yet we in the United States say we “waited in line” (I won’t address heathens who say “waited on line”) even though the line to which we refer is neither infinitely long nor of zero width. In short, any attempt to conflate geometry with idiomatic usage is beyond misguided.

  • I’ve discovered that the phrase “full of beans” has different meanings depending on region of the U.S.. In the Midwest, where I’m from, it means sassy & energetic, but in other parts of the country (esp. the South) it means “full of crap.”

  • Curtis: Indeed. It makes no sense to apply the same rules in language that obtain in geometry. They’re fundamentally different systems, with different kinds of logic.

    duve: That’s interesting. I’ve only ever heard the “energetic” phrase, and wasn’t aware of another meaning at all. Maybe instead of baked beans they’re faked beans.

  • I would imagine that when you are talking about something as complex as isolating strains of a virus, then there is an idea of trying to find the solution. Maybe centred around is an idiomatic way of comparing searching in an area for the answer to the way a bird will circle around it’s pray before swooping to attack.

  • Bob: Yes, I think that rings true a lot of the times it’s used. Centre around combines the circling around of circle around and the centring on of centre on — analogous to a bird and its prey, as you say.

  • Stan:
    The whole kerfuffle amounts to nonsense over a semantic shift. “Centres (ers) around” avoids circumlocutions like “the poiint of the discussion,” or “the emphasis of,” etc. Besides, I never think geometrically unless I fail to square a circle.

  • Stan:
    I propose the establishment of a world academy that would require everyone to use the same language (no variant dialects or pronunciations) and orthography, on pain of never being spoken to again after the second infraction. That would solve the problem.

  • Grrrr. The simple point, seemingly overlooked here, is that the word ‘on’ can and should always be used in place of ‘around’, with no loss of meaning (or, with respect, of the supposed complexity of whatever’s being discussed) and a great deal less annoyance to those of us with a dislike of the oxymoronic. (As for the point above about ‘surrounding’, that word is entirely clear in its meaning, so seems to me to be irrelevant to this debate.) So, let’s resolve to ‘revolve around’ issues, plots, etc, or ‘centre/center on’ them. Pip pip.

  • Stephen: Language often isn’t literal or logical, and its users don’t obey rules just to avoid annoying those who dislike apparent illogic or oxymorons. ‘Should always’ won’t get you far in usage disputes. You can resolve to ‘revolve around’ and ‘centre on’, but others are equally free not to.

  • I’m going to go with the purists and agree that it is an annoyance. However, I can live with it; I just think it’s poor usage. It does bother me when I see it, I cannot deny it, and the argument against its usage is sound, but I think the cause since the ’90s, when it seemed that ‘centre around’ became acceptable, has been lost. Having said that, you won’t catch me using it it. It’s almost as bad a mixed metaphors, which can at times at least be amusing.

  • That’s fair enough, Tim. The phrase doesn’t annoy me, but I still don’t use it, and when editing I would sometimes change it to centre on if the less disputed phrase works better or equally well. But it’s not the case that centre around became acceptable only in the 1990s — it was in uncontroversial use for decades before complaints started to appear about a century ago.