Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 24 July 2004

A Lexicographer writes

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The film Around the World in Eighty Days, though identified as a turkey by the taxonomists of the critics’ circle, took more money in Britain last week than any film but one, with incalculable effects on the English language. But before I drone on about that, let me mention a satisfying sighting of well reported by Mr Robin Taylor of Blackburn. It is from Thomas Hardy’s poem on the loss of the Titanic, ‘The Convergence of the Twain’. Mr Taylor mentions it as an example of Hardy incorporating everyday speech, but I was surprised by the proportion of elevated ‘poetic diction’ in the composition, even if Hardy knew what he was at.

Naturally the management of the universe comes in for criticism, through a conceit perhaps taken from Plato’s concept of the ‘other half’, in pursuit of which men are supposed to be forever engaged. In any case, Hardy develops the fancy that while the Titanic was a-building, its appointed iceberg was growing to ripeness. He begins his narrative section thus:

Well: while was fashioning

This creature of cleaving wing,
The Immanent Will that stirs and urges everything

Prepared a sinister mate

For her — so gaily great —
A Shape of Ice, for the time far and dissociate.

And as the smart ship grew

In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.

Now read on. And so back to around, for this is an American usage that is tending, like some Japanese knotweed, to displace round in English where before it was the autochthonous growth. Last week in the Daily Telegraph I read of the first blind person to ‘fly around Britain’. I’m not sure what this really meant anyway, but the writer would ordinarily have said ‘round Britain’ if he meant circumnavigation. I don’t doubt scores of blind people fly unendingly around Britain, from one cold provincial airport to another.

In America it is otherwise, and around is the preferred term in many a construction — so much so that the Thelonious Monk number ‘’Round Midnight’ is usually written with what seems to us British English-speakers an otiose apostrophe. In informal speech round and around distinguish meanings. Just as we go round the mulberry bush, we hang lights round the Christmas tree, but our children, using an intransitive phrasal verb, just hang around. God forbid that they should sleep around too. But here it comes round again, this grey squirrel Around the World in Eighty Days, displacing the red squirrel Round the World Yacht Race.