I. What is Circumlocution?
Circumlocution (sir-kum-low-KEW-shun) means “talking around” or “talking in circles.” It’s when you want to discuss something, but don’t want to make any direct reference to it, so you create a way to get around the subject.
The key to circumlocution is that the statement has to be unnecessarily long and complicated. So “the vehicle that I use to drive to work in the mornings” is a circumlocution for “my car.”
Most of the time, circumlocution is just an error — it’s what happens when the author can’t come up with the best, most concise expression. But sometimes, as we’ll see, there is a purpose behind the circumlocution.
Circumlocution might have a negative connotation, but its precise definition is somewhat subjective. To one person, a long and flowery passage might seem like a circumlocution. But to others, the same passage might seem compelling and imaginative. It depends on one’s tastes and how much one prefers directness over flourishes.
Another word for “circumlocution” is “periphrasis.”
II. Examples of Circumlocution
In many religious traditions, practitioners use other names to refer to God. So they come up with circumlocutions such as “Our Father who art in Heaven.”
In the Harry Potter series, the dark lord Voldemort is frequently referred to as:
These circumlocutions are designed to avoid bringing down Voldemort’s curse, which can be caused by speaking his name. This euphemistic practice is similar to many religious prohibitions around the world against speaking the names of divine or demonic figures.
III. The Problem with Circumlocution
Circumlocution is nearly always a bad thing – clarity and directness are generally features of good writing, so their opposite (circumlocution) is bad writing almost by definition.
The value of concise writing comes from the unwritten contract between readers and writers. When you pick up a book or article, you expect the author to give you a good story or a persuasive or informative argument in the most efficient manner possible. You give the writer your attention, and in return the author promises not to waste it. Circumlocutions, talking around the subject rather than confronting it directly, are generally a violation of that contract.
However, there are a few cases where a writer will deliberately resort to circumlocution (we’ll see some examples in section 6). Although the circumlocution has a purpose in these cases, it’s still basically a failing – the best authors can usually accomplish these goals without resorting to circumlocutions.
IV. Examples of Circumlocution in Literature
Euphemisms are a common form of circumlocution. Euphemism is when someone wants to use a “nicer” term for something rude or taboo. And when that euphemism is also a long, roundabout explanation, it’s also For example, “passed on from this earth” is a euphemism and a circumlocution for “died.”
In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the pigs who control the farm decide to take more of the food for themselves and leave less for the other animals. In a classic example of political circumlocution, the pigs explain that:
For the time being it has been found necessary to make a readjustment of rations.
In addition to talking around what essentially amounts to theft, the speaker is also using the passive voice to mask who is behind this action – even if the theft were acknowledged, it would be in the form of “food was stolen,” not “we stole food.”
V. Examples in Popular Culture
In one episode of Firefly, Captain Reynolds tells an enemy that he was “not burdened with an overabundance of schooling,” which is a circumlocution for “stupid” or at least “uneducated.” In this case, Captain Reynolds’s circumlocution is designed to go over the enemy’s head, thus displaying his stupidity in practice as well as describing it in words.
In his testimony before Congress, baseball legend Mark McGwire was repeatedly asked whether he used performance-enhancing drugs (i.e. steroids) during his career as a slugger. Instead of answering the questions, McGwire explained that “I’m not here to talk about the past.” This efficient circumlocution allowed him to avoid answering the question one way or another.
VI. Related Terms
Verbosity is circumlocution without purpose. It’s usually a quality of a person — one who just goes on and on, using far too many words for their intended purpose without adding much meaning, and often including redundant phrases that say the same thing twice, that is more than once, unnecessarily and without need.
For example, the phrase “at this point in time” is a circumlocution for “now,” and is often used by verbose speakers.
Verbose characters might include professors, lawyers, politicians, and businessmen.
Innuendo is an act of sly or suggestive speech, usually designed to mask a person’s true intentions. The most common form of innuendo is sexual or romantic innuendo, when someone will suggestively hint at the fact that they are interested in the other person, without saying so directly.
Well-written characters frequently use innuendo to suggest their sexual and romantic desires, but they may also use this technique to throw oblique insults without coming right out and making any explicitly negative comments.
Equivocation is a favorite technique of disingenuous politicians and public figures. It’s a deliberately ambiguous use of language that allows everyone to think that the speaker agrees with them. A successful equivocation will leave so much room for interpretation that the speaker can walk away without having committed to any particular position.
For example, if a school board president was asked why she decided to ban a particular book from the curriculum, she might respond, “I think it’s important to choose the best possible books for our children’s classrooms.” The statement is obviously true, but only sounds like it answers the question – really it’s just a dodge that addresses none of the substantive issues the questioner was worried about.
Equivocation is often referred to as “doublespeak.”