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Circumlocution (also called circumduction, circumvolution, periphrasis, kenning,[1][dubious ] or ambage[citation needed]) is the use of an unnecessarily large number of words to express an idea. It is sometimes necessary in communication (for example, to work around lexical gaps that might otherwise lead to untranslatability), but it can also be undesirable (when an uncommon or easily misunderstood figure of speech is used).[2] Roundabout speech is the use of many words to describe something that already has a common and concise term (for example, saying "a tool used for cutting things such as paper and hair" instead of "scissors").[3] Most dictionaries use circumlocution to define words. Circumlocution is often used by people with aphasia and people learning a new language, where simple terms can be paraphrased to aid learning or communication (for example, paraphrasing the word "grandfather" as "the father of one's father"). Among other usages, circumlocution can be used to construct euphemisms, innuendos, and equivocations.

Language acquisition[edit]

Circumlocution is often used by beginner and intermediate second language speakers to convey the meaning of a word they don't know in their target language. Relative clauses are often used for circumlocution in English.[4] For example,

[Firefighters] are the people who you call when your house is on fire. A [spider] is an arachnid that catches other insects in its web.

Synonyms and simile are two other common circumlocution strategies.[4] A pomegranate could be described using these techniques as follows:

It's a kind of fruit, it's red and it has lots and lots of little seeds in it.


Euphemistic language often uses circumlocution to avoid saying words that are taboo or considered offensive. For example, "Holy mother of Jesus!" is a circumlocution of "Mary!", but "heck", while still euphemistic, is not a circumlocution of "hell".

Euphemistic circumlocution is also used to avoid saying "unlucky words"—words which are taboo for reasons connected with superstition: for example, calling the devil "Old Nick",[note 1] calling Macbeth "the Scottish Play" or saying "baker's dozen" instead of thirteen.


Innuendo refers to something suggested but not explicitly stated.[5]


Equivocation is the use of ambiguous language to avoid telling the truth or forming commitments.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Speak of the devil, and he will appear" is the proverb.


  1. ^ "periphrasis – definition and examples of periphrasis (rhetoric)". 1953-08-10. Retrieved 2013-05-20.
  2. ^ Gail Ramshaw (1 January 1996). Liturgical Language: Keeping it Metaphoric, Making it Inclusive. Liturgical Press. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-8146-2408-1. Retrieved 29 September 2013.
  3. ^ Máire Byrne (8 September 2011). The Names of God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: A Basis for Interfaith Dialogue. Continuum. p. 48. ISBN 978-1-4411-5356-2. Retrieved 29 September 2013.
  4. ^ a b "Circumlocution Strategies". 2018-01-25. Retrieved 2022-09-14.
  5. ^ "innuendo – definition of innuendo by the Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2013-05-25.
  6. ^ New Oxford American Dictionary 2nd edition 2005 by Oxford University Press, Inc.

External links[edit]