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I think the idiomatic expresssion “dance around” a subject, an issue meaning, avoid addressing a subject or an issue, is a common metaphor as in:

When it comes to money, however, we find lots of ways to dance around the subject, engage euphemisms to shield reality, or avoid the topic altogether. From Women, Money & Cheesecake: By Brona Pinnolis, Linda A. Tripp, Paulette Williamson

But she, too, found it easier to dance around the subject rather than actually just say out loud what they were both thinking. From Just the Sexiest Man Alive By Julie James

Curiously I couldn’t find its meaning in any online dictionary (can’t tell about the OED) and the only reference available appears to be the following page from thesaurus.com.

Is it because it is a very recent expression or because it is not as common as I guessed it was?

Whatever the case, is it a valid expression that can be safely used, at least, colloquially?

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    It can definitely be used. Google Ngrams seems to show it's fairly recent, and predominantly American. – Peter Shor Jan 18 at 16:09
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    Both OALD 4th and 9th show "no hit", not even as an idiom: that would tend to validate Peter's observation that it is probably AmE. – Cascabel Jan 18 at 16:36
  • I've seen it in the UK, but in with other management-speak buzzwords. – Chris H Jan 18 at 19:46
  • It's a matter of one's approach to not approaching a problem. Some dance around the topic, others tiptoe around it. – choster Jan 18 at 20:24
  • A search on "dance around definition" yields this hit: thesaurus.com/browse/dance%20around%20an%20issue – Greg Lee Jan 18 at 20:54
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To dance around something, phrasal verb: Longman Advanced American Dictionary

  • to avoid discussing something or dealing with it directly
  • As in:
  • "The governor spent the day dancing around reporters’ questions".

Difficult to find, but this dictionary has it. No etymology with Longman. The link is to the public access. Unlike the OED, apparently paywall does not allow one to even view a link. In italics is publicly available. I have access to the full version, to which I answer.

Here is its use in an AmE newspaper : google books

Reading Eagle - Page 32

Reading Eagle - ‎Dec 11, 2003 - ‎Newspaper - ‎Full view Berks lawmakers twirled around the question when asked where they stood. "Squarely on both feet," joked Hep. Samuel E. Rohrer, a Robeson Township Republican. "I'll guess I have to dance around the issue because I don't know"

I hear it used in AmE frequently, especially in our raucous politics.

  • It is curious they have it in the English/Japanese section. – user240918 Jan 18 at 20:31
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    @user240918 That is the only 'free' visible link, at least that i could find. – lbf Jan 18 at 20:40
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The phrase dance around (an issue) is not likely to be considered a true phrasal verb because it is merely a figurative extension whose component parts may still be analyzed to reach its meaning, unlike, say, put up, carry through, or come around.

The metaphor was available long before the expression became popular in the 1970s–80s:

This becomes strictly a standoff argument, a clear sign we are in one of those "who, me?" periods of diplomacy and world history when both sides say "You're to blame" and both exclaim: "Who, me?" Diplomats, of course, don't put it so bluntly since they dance around the language as delicately as a couple doing the minuet in the Court of Louis XV. — Santa Cruz Sentinel (CA), 11 June 1951.

While this linguistic minuet illustrates one possible source for the expression, the sheer length of the simile — including the name of a French king — tells you it’s not yet the expression itself.

A less elegant dance occurred to Hubert Humphrey before the 1968 presidential election:

Earlier in the day in Minneapolis, Minn., Humphrey acknowledged that he is trailing Richard M. Nixon, but he charged that his Republican opponent of “dancing around the fire” on major issues. — San Bernardino Sun, 25 Sept. 1968.

Another ancestor could be the defensive footwork in boxing:

I now began to dance around my adversary in the conventional style, and had just given him “one for his nob,” when looking over his shoulders I discovered the amazed | faces of Dion Boucicault and William Stuart. Against the dark background of the room the two heads of these gentlemen loomed up like another pair of boxing-gloves. — Joseph Jefferson, with Laura Keene, The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson, 1889, serialized: The Century Magazine, 39 (n.s. 17)/5 (Mar. 1890), 654f.

Rather than attack a problem directly, someone can dance around the issue like a boxer avoiding a blow, at the same time never giving the metaphorical opponent “one for his nob.”

By the 1970s the expression with which we’re familiar emerges:

We cannot dance around the issue—our mandate is clearly before us, he said. “A critical element of your charge, therefore, is to ultimately propose a revenue plan which will permit the state to continue to speedily adopt the primary responsibility for financing public education.” — Daily Illini (U. of IL Champaign-Urbana), 28 Sept. 1972.

Nixon changed the rules which tended to tie his predecessor to the status quo. When the Joint Chiefs asked the Secretary of Defense to secure a national policy on CBW [chemical, biological weapons] in 1969, Laird was able to request a NSSM study on the subject, instead of having to dance around the issue as McNamara had been forced to. — Appendices: Commission on the Organization of the Government for the Conduct of Foreign Policy, Part V: Establishing Arms Control Negotiating Positions, Richard Huff, Burton Rosenthal, eds., June,1975.

The dance is metaphoric, but the preposition around is still locative, around something but never addressing it directly.

To make the difference clearer, look at the following sentence:

Police say the rider was speeding on Sandau Road near Isom Road when he came too fast around the corner and crashed into the wall at about 11 p.m. on Tuesday. — KABB San Antonio, 6 June 2018.

Around the corner describes the direction this unfortunate motorcyclist was travelling before he slammed into a retaining wall. Now compare this usage to come around as an idiomatic phrasal verb:

He urged me to not disclose a position, hoping I would come around to supporting the bill. — George R. Ariyoshi, With Obligation to All, 1997.

It was at dusk when Larry came around the house in a brand new station wagon that he had bought for the band. — Idris Muhammad Inside the Music: the Life of Idris Muhammad, 2012.

Just as I was releasing my grip the lorry went over a bump and the tailgate came up and hit me on the chin. I was knocked unconscious. I came around quickly to find Paddy in a more distressed state than I was. — Willie McCarney, Big Boys Don't Cry, 2017, 43.

None of these meanings can be analyzed simply as come + around: a phrasal verb is almost never merely the sum of its parts. Dancing around an issue is metaphor.

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    Nice answer, but I do think it is a phrasal verb. – user240918 Jan 18 at 20:55
  • @user240918: Then how would you separate figurative use of a verb + locative/dierctional prep. phrase from a phrasal verb? – KarlG Jan 18 at 20:58
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    “A phrasal verb is a verb that is made up of a main verb together with an adverb or a preposition, or both. Typically, their meaning is not obvious from the meanings of the individual words themselves”. en.oxforddictionaries.com/grammar/phrasal-verbs - though it may be somewhat intuitive, its literal meaning is not: avoid addressing an issue. – user240918 Jan 18 at 21:01
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    It does not put its object next to the verb like phrasal verbs do: *"He danced the issue around". – Greg Lee Jan 18 at 21:02
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    @GregLee: Not all phrasal verbs do that, so it’s not a valid criterion. – KarlG Jan 18 at 21:04

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