Beat around the bush
What's the meaning of the phrase 'Beat about the bush'?
To prevaricate and avoid coming to the point.
What's the origin of the phrase 'Beat about the bush'?
The figurative meaning of the odd phrase 'beat around the bush' or, as it is usually expressed in the UK, 'beat about the bush', evolved from the earlier literal meaning. In bird hunts some of the participants roused the birds by beating the bushes and enabling others, to use a much later phrase, to 'cut to the chase' and catch the quarry in nets. So 'beating about the bush' was the preamble to the main event, which was the capturing of the birds. Of course, grouse hunting and other forms of hunt still use beaters today.
The phrase is old and first appears in the medieval poem Generydes - A Romance in Seven-line Stanzas, circa 1440:
Butt as it hath be sayde full long agoo,
Some bete the bussh and some the byrdes take.
The poem is anonymous and exists only as a single handwritten manuscript in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, the early printed versions all having disappeared. Even at that early date the author's implication was clearly that 'beting the bussh' was considered a poor substitute for getting on with it and 'taking the byydes'. If it really was said 'full long agoo' in the 15th century then the English 'beat about the bush' must be one of the oldest non-biblical phrases in the language. The earliest version I can find that adds 'about' to 'beat the bush' is in George Gascoigne's Works, 1572:
He bet about the bush, whyles other caught the birds.
As far as the relative global popularity of the two versions of the phrase goes, the US version is becoming the standard. According to this graph of instances of the two phrases in print that are recorded in Google's databases, 'beat around the bush' overtook 'beat about the bush' around (or about, if you prefer) 1980.