Dear Word Detective: When did people start saying “concerning,” as in “That huge glob of oil out there is concerning,” rather than “concerns me”? I hear it on the radio all the time now. — Laura Stempel.

Eww, creepy. I knew there was a reason I don’t listen to the radio. Actually, I do listen to the radio sometimes, specifically when I’m sitting in the car while a certain person is shopping, and it’s after 8 pm, so the local public radio station is playing the BBC World Service. That may sound like a rare combination of circumstances, but, trust me, it’s not. Let’s just say I know a ton about about unemployment in Estonia, fast food in sub-Saharan Africa, and the plight of orphaned elephants wherever it is they live, and I learned it all in the Kroger parking lot.

In any case, you’re right, and it isn’t just radio. A search of Google News today for “is concerning” produces 341 hits, most of them using “concerning” in the way you mention, which is as an adjective meaning “giving cause for anxiety or distress” (“Suicide is concerning at any age, but especially with our youth,” Deseret News). It’s hard to measure just when this particular use of the word became as popular as it apparently is now, but if you restrict your search to years before 2005, Google doesn’t find a single example. (There are obvious problems with this method, the increase in the number of publications Google indexes over the past few years being probably the biggest.)

Our word “concern” first appeared in English in the mid-15th century as a verb meaning “to perceive or discern.” The roots of “concern” are nicely poetic. It’s derived from the Latin verb “concernere,” a combination of “con,” together, and “cernere” meaning “to sift (as through a sieve)” as well as, figuratively, “to separate, distinguish, perceive.” In Medieval Latin “concernere” also carried the sense of “to look at, to regard, to have respect or reference to,” from which we take our modern use of “concern” meaning “to have a bearing or influence on, to pertain to, to affect” (“Bob was invited to the meeting because the new rules concern his position”).

This sense of “concern” meaning “affect or have an influence on” led to the use of “concern” to mean “engage the attention of,” and, in a reflexive use, to the phrase “to concern oneself,” to interest or trouble oneself with an issue or development (“Hee doth of late more publickly concerne himself in state affairs,” 1676). While it’s obviously possible to be suddenly interested in something good, it’s not surprising that by around 1674 we were using “concerned” to mean “troubled or distressed; anxious or sorrowful” about something.

The adjective “concerning,” which first appeared in print in the mid-17th century, followed a similar arc of development. Initially, “concerning” meant simply “important; that which gives cause for consideration; worth noticing or paying attention to.” A century later, however, “concerning” had taken on a connotation parallel to the “troubled” sense of “concerned,” and was being used to mean “troubling, distressing, worrying” (“I cannot bear any thing that is the least concerning to you,” S. Richardson, Pamela, 1740).

That’s the adjectival “concerning” that you hear on the radio, and there’s nothing wrong with it, although it’s never been as popular as the transitive use of the verb, probably because it’s less forceful and more vague (“Most Americans are concerned by the rise in unemployment” definitely beats “Most Americans find the rise in unemployment concerning” in my book). What’s weird about the usage you cite is the lack of an identifiable subject who is being “concerned” by the “concerning” thing. The oil glob may be “concerning,” but, literally, who cares? People in general? Stockbrokers? Porpoises? Oceanographers?

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