I’m all about the whale: Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab in the 1956 "Moby Dick"
The Word Watch column began on Jan. 30 with James M. Edwards’ critique of "the hanging ‘here.’ " He followed up two months later with an investigation into the devaluation of the word "amazing." Today, Mr. Edwards continues his linguistic disquisitions.
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Herman Melville’s "Moby-Dick," what is it about? One student responds, "It’s about whales."
Another tries, "It’s about obsession."
A third offers, "It’s about 1,668 pages."
The class laughs. Finally a reluctant student says, " ‘Moby-Dick’ is all about Herman Melville. And," he adds, "Herman Melville is all about ‘Moby-Dick.’ "
Stop. About face. We’ll have to march back to analyze this because we’ve now encountered a late-breaking usage of "about."
Webster’s goes on and on about "about." First it’s an adverb with eight definitions all of which boil down to "around" (looking about), "here and there," "approximately" (about four inches) and "reversal" (coming about in a boat).
But the real fun begins with "about" when it’s a preposition, relating one thing to another in space or time. Here it means "around" (bind it about your neck) and "near" (tomorrow about this time). The later definitions of "about" as a preposition are where this new suspicious usage comes from.
"In concern with …" (I must be about my father’s business.)
"On the verge of …" (Paul was about to be sick.)
"Concerning …" (Jane must have her way about Sarah.)
And, finally, "appertaining to…" (His face was the worst thing about him.)
When the teacher asks what "Moby-Dick" is about, then, he’s asking what that story appertains to. Now what does that mean?
To me it has always meant what is the theme of "Moby-Dick"? What is the prevailing idea? Why did Melville write the book at all? Man’s Inhumanity to Man, A Coming of Age Story, perhaps, A Struggle Between Good and Evil?
Years ago now, when my son and I were arguing about a highly paid ballplayer, and whether he was really worth the money, my son asserted, "Dad, it’s not about the money." He paused thoughtfully, and then finished, "It’s about what you can get with the money!"
What’s he talking about? Is that synonymous with What is he saying? Or is it, rather, synonymous with What does he mean by what he’s saying?
Rick Warren, in his runaway best seller "The Purpose Driven Life," wasn’t doing anything if he wasn’t re-interpreting the balms of Christianity into new-age speak. The first sentence of that widely read and revered book is "It’s not about you."
What? First of all, what is it, anyway?
Well, let’s supply some obvious antecedents: Life, or God’s Creation, or the universe isn’t about me. So they aren’t concerning you or appertaining to you.
The American Heritage Dictionary is trying to be, or become, the hip usage policeman for the American brand of English. This is a big job.
In a usage note under their listing for "about," they intone:
"About is traditionally used to refer to the relation between a narrative and its subject: about a whale, a movie about a cowboy. This use has lately been extended to refer to the relation between various nonlinguistic entities and the things that they make manifest, as in ‘The party was mostly about showing off their new offices.’ This practice originates with the expression ‘That’s what it’s all about.’ "
It remains controversial. Fifty-nine percent of the usage panel rejected this use: ‘A designer teapot isn’t about making tea; it’s about letting people know you have a $100 teapot.’ "
The American Heritage Dictionary has a hard time disapproving of much — all the f’s, s’s, barnyard terms, sexual slang, ethnic slurs, etc. are there, I suppose because we hear them and they must list them and discuss them.
Contrastingly, the emerging usage of "about" is frowned upon by the panel!
Remember that the next time you’re tempted to say something like, "Summer, ahhhhhh!! It’s all about the vacation!"
The usage panel won’t like it and will penalize you usage points.
Word Watch welcomes your observations on today’s lingo. Write to [email protected], send mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222, or call 412-263-1915.