Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Round On

Posted by Neal on December 20, 2009

My sister Ellen stayed with us last week, in between stops on her Midwest residency interview tour.

“Wait,” you’re saying. “You mean the same Ellen who graduated from UT Austin in 2004 has now completed medical school?”

You better believe it! Glen has been delighted to have a family member studying medicine. She’s gotten used to him calling her during the last couple of years in his capacity as a Fringe writer, asking her what the gruesome details would look like if such-and-such happened to someone. Usually her answer has been, “That couldn’t happen.” Glen’s next question is then, “OK, but if it could happen…?”

I’ve been learning some medical jargon from her, like scrub in, scrub out, and morbidity. I’ve also learned a phrase for the activity of visiting one’s hospital patients early in the morning: rounding on them.

“I thought they called that making the rounds,” I said.

“They call it that, too,” Ellen agreed, “but we also say ’rounding on.'”

The only meaning for round on I’d been aware of was to suddenly turn toward someone and say something confrontational. J. K. Rowling uses it a lot. For example:

“Don’t you want to know how Ginny got hold of that diary, Mr. Malfoy?” said Harry.
Lucius Malfoy rounded on him.
“How should I know how the stupid little girl got hold of it?” he said. (p. 336)

That meaning was just as strange to Ellen as hers was to me, so I wondered if it was a piece of British English. I couldn’t remember if I’d seen it in American-written stuff, or heard Americans say it. A quick check of the Corpus of Contemporary American English reveals that it’s definitely not just British:

  • Thor was feeling well pleased with himself when Lindsey rounded on him. “Don’t you ever do that again!”
  • SECOND SWAT OFFICER… What happened to right to life…? (he laughs) Starling rounds on him, hits him several times, and throws him to the ground. # STARLING # What happened to right to life? What happened to right to my life…?
  • He looked like a lump, and sometimes Molly told him that, rounding on him suddenly from the big stove and laying into him without mercy.

There are also medical uses in CoCA, though (understandably) not as many. I didn’t find an example with rounded on, but I found:

  • The ENIT responder, twice per day, rounds on the general care units.
  • Rounding on patients at five thirty in the morning usually turns up at least a handful of people who tell you they’d feel fine if only you assholes would stop waking them up every four hours to ask them how they’re feeling.

After Ellen learned the non-medical meaning for round on, she allowed as how attending physicians did a fair amount of that kind of rounding-on, too.

6 Responses to “Round On”

  1. Ran said

    There also exists “prerounding (on a patient)”, at least in the University of Toledo College of Medicine dialect (the modern descendant of the older Medical College of Ohio dialect). I should really know the difference between rounding and prerounding, but I don’t, quite. (Broadly speaking, “prerounding” occurs without an attending, and is in preparation for a “rounding” that occurs with an attending, but I don’t have a full grasp on the subtleties. For example, I don’t think that all “rounding” actually requires an attending, but don’t quote me on that.)

  2. I’m sensing an inter-blog crossover event coming.

  3. The Ridger said

    Somebody forgot to turn off his italics …

    That “rounding on” – the attack version – is quite familiar to me.

  4. Glen said

    Yes, I’m familiar with that “rounding on” as well, and I’ve never read any J.K. Rowling. Perhaps it shows up in the Flashman novels? If so, I’ve absorbed it well enough to consider it normal American English.

  5. MWarhol said

    There’s also the line from David Maurer’s book Whiz Mob: A Correlation of the Technical Argot of Pickpockets with Their Behavior Pattern:

    “Never round on an office, it might be fur.”

    Wonderfully enigmatic, unless you’ve read the book, or were a British pickpocket in the 1950s.

  6. […] was subjected to stupid linguistic humor from her brothers as a girl, who graduated from UTexas, earned her MD, and is now doing her residency?) One thing I’ve admired about Ellen since she started dating […]

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