Centring around phonetic alphabets

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about idioms and alphabets, specifically centre around and “SaypU”.

In Centring around a usage disagreement, I discuss the phrase centre around and the regular complaints that it’s somehow wrong or illogical:

Centre around has been in use for about a century and a half, and no one seemed to mind it until the 1920s. Then someone cried foul, or rather illogic, and since then many have found fault with its apparent contravention of mathematical propriety. Nowadays it’s a regular source of annoyance, some of it extreme: one reader said seeing it in an article sent her “screaming to Strunk and White”. I worry for her blood pressure.

Critics object that a centre is “technically a single point” (Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage) and you can’t physically centre around something. But if centres were single points, city centres would be impossibly crowded.

The problem lies with the tension between mathematical logic and idiomatic usage. (You can guess which side I’m on.) I’m also interested in what motivates people to say centre around, and I touch on that later in the post.

Do you use the phrase, avoid it, like it, hate it, or have no strong feelings either way?

*

Next: Can shared alphabets foster peace? follows up on a recent BBC report about a new phonetic alphabet, SaypU, whose creator hopes it can make the world more peaceful and harmonious. Historically this is nothing unusual:

Moral and political aspirations have motivated inventors of languages and other communication systems for centuries. Esperanto is perhaps the most famous. Its creator, Ludwik Zamenhof, was an idealist who felt the “heavy sadness” of linguistic diversity and believed it was “the only, or at least the primary force which divides the human family into enemy parts”. So he created Esperanto to foster communication and understanding between people of different languages.

But would speaking the same language really make people more inclined to get on? . . . [T]here’s no reason to assume greater communicative overlap would engender significantly more kindness and mutual consideration among people.

The post looks briefly at whether the project measures up in practical terms, and throws the IPA and Douglas Adams into the mix.

For older articles, see my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

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3 Responses to Centring around phonetic alphabets

  1. mollymooly says:

    I’m tempted to invent a distinction between “centre around” and “centre on” based on how compact or well defined the ‘centre’ is.

    One might also hesitate between “A centres on B” and “A is centred on B”. Or not.

  2. Garrett Wollman says:

    In all honesty, I have no opinion on “center around” (my spelling), although I don’t think I use it. But what does get my back up is the emerging “it’s like a center only more so” sense of “epicenter”.

  3. Stan says:

    mollymooly: Or a distinction between centre around and centre round, depending on how round the circumference is.

    Garrett: That use of epicenter does seem a bit inflationary, but it’s been spreading inexorably for about a century now. Grammarphobia wrote about it a few years ago.

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