Q: I hate the use of “around” or “surrounding” for “about” in sentences like these: (1) “There are a lot of concerns surrounding this announcement.” (2) “Do you have any questions around the change?” (3) “This discussion is centered around the new policy.” When did this start, and why do I hate it so much?
A: You’re not the only one who dislikes the usage. None of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult recognize the use of “surrounding” or “around” to mean “in reference to” or “concerned with”—the sense of “about” you mean.
However, the Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary, includes “around” as a preposition meaning “in reference or relation to; concerning, about.” And we’ve found written examples for both “around” and “surrounding” used this way since the late 19th century.
Here’s an early “around” example from a religious treatise by an Anglican clergyman: “This is not a controversy around details or externals. It bears upon the heart of the Gospel” (Crux Christi: Being a Consideration of Some Aspects of the Doctrine of Atonement, 1892, by John Bennett).
And here’s an early “surrounding” example from an Oklahoma newspaper: “It will be remembered that the Wichita reservation was kept out of the controversy surrounding the opening of the lands of the Kickapoos and Comanches and Apaches” (The Guthrie Daily Leader, April 13, 1895).
The earliest OED citation for the “around” usage is from the May 1897 issue of Punch: “Essence of Parliament … Useful, but not precisely alluring, debate around Employers’ Liability Bill.”
The dictionary’s most recent example is from an article about migrants seeking asylum in Britain: “Her biblical reflections … are thought provoking, and will … act as a stimulus to further biblical enquiry around the themes of justice and hospitality” (The Church Times, Sept. 20, 2013).
Searches with Google’s Ngram viewer indicate that the use of “surrounding” and “around” in the sense of “about” increased sharply in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. But the usage is still relatively rare when “surrounding” and “around” phrases are compared with those using “about.”
We agree that “surrounding” and “around” seem out of place in your three examples. We’d use “about” in the first two: “There are a lot of concerns about this announcement” and “Do you have any questions about the change?”
However, we wouldn’t use “about” in the third example. We think “on” would be more to the point: “This discussion is centered on the new policy.”