“Drinks all around!” cries Johnny Depp, proposing a toast on board ship in the film Pirates of the Caribbean (2003). I had to sit up and take notice when I heard this. It was water that was all around, surely? And a round of drinks was “drinks all round”. “Around” is a perfectly good British English word, but thanks largely to American cinema it has come to be used almost universally instead of round. The difference of meaning is difficult to detect sometimes, but it’s irritating when “around” is applied in all circumstances, since circumstances do in fact differ.
We used to be quite clear about it: “The wheels on the bus go round and round …” Now, people would try to say “around and around”, or might, in America, insert an apostrophe (’round and ’round) to show the longer word was being abbreviated. A recent book about Victorian culture cites Dickens’s famous magazine All the Year Round consistently as All the Year ’Round – the American writer evidently unable to imagine the monosyllable as a word in its own right.
To look around is to survey everything surrounding you; to look round is to turn your head to look behind you. Just consider these two sentences: “She looked around,” and this: “She looked round.” The first means “she looked all over the place (to find something…)” the second means “She turned her head to look behind her.” It’s a useful distinction. “I heard her sneakers crunch behind me. I knew she had stopped but I didn’t look around” – Paul Theroux, My Secret History, 1989. The distinction is lost here. An American printer took the liberty of substituting “around” for “round” in a sentence of my own: “The sun moved around the sky”. The sun moving “around” the sky would, I think, involve a mazy dance, not a steady motion.
In these examples the preposition “round” would be preferable, if only to preserve the separate meaning. A century ago, American writers still respected the British distinction between the two words. But already in the 1930s, Americans often preferred “around” to “round”. In Britain the change began, some people think, with another American film, which came out as long ago as 1956: “Around the World in Eighty Days”, and there’s the associated Sinatra song, “Around the world I’ve searched for you …”. It has taken a half-century to become standard usage over here.
When “around” is used exclusively, as in the novels of the Australian Peter Carey, as though it were the only available preposition, it can produce odd results, as in ‘“Where am I?” she murmured as she came around from the anaesthetic.” It is noteworthy that the novelist Jilly Cooper consistently discriminates carefully between “round” and “around” (though she is wayward to the point of eccentricity in her use of commas).
You may think this is a trivial point being blown out of proportion. But the mistake is often proof that people who write such things are oblivious to spelling and sense – not to mention indifferent to accuracy in transcription. In a book of 2014, British Art in the Nuclear Age, a poster for the 1951 Festival of Britain titled “The Way to Go Round THE DOME [of Discovery]” is reproduced with the caption “The Way to Go Around the Dome” and is thus listed in the index of illustrations. The title of the poster appears on the same page as the caption, yet neither author nor editor of this academic publication noticed the discrepancy.
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It’s especially distressing when usages such as this become retrospective: the caption to a playbill displayed in the Gielgud Theatre, 2008, gives the title of Christopher Fry’s play “Ring round the Moon” (1950; a translation from Jean Anouilh) as “Ring around the Moon”. These are clearly unthinking transcriptions conditioned by the newly universal use of “around”, and I deplore the editorial laziness that can’t spot these small points. But my chief regret is that a useful word and a valuable distinction are threatened with oblivion.