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Circumlocution (also called circumduction, circumvolution, periphrasis,[1] or ambage)[2] is locution that circles around a specific idea with multiple words rather than directly evoking it with fewer and apter words. It is sometimes a necessary tool of communication (for example, in getting around lexical gaps to overcome untranslatability), but it is also often a flaw in communication (for example, when it is a figure of speech that is unnecessarily ambiguous and obscure).[3] Ambiguity means that information can have multiple meanings and can be misunderstood.[4] Roundabout speech refers to using many words (such as "a tool used for cutting things such as paper and hair") to describe something for which a concise (and commonly known) expression exists ("scissors").[5] The vast majority of definitions found in dictionaries are circumlocutory. Circumlocution is often used by people with aphasia and people learning a new language, where in the absence of a word (such as "abuelo" [grandfather] in Spanish) the subject can simply be described ("el padre de su padre" [the father of one's father]). Euphemism, innuendo, and equivocation are different types of ambiguous and roundabout language, also called circumlocution.


Euphemistic language is the use of circumlocution to avoid saying words which are under a cultural taboo, such as words which are, or could be, considered offensive. Euphemism, however, is only sometimes circumlocutory. 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.[6]


Equivocation is the use of ambiguous language with the purpose of avoiding telling the truth or committing oneself.[7] For example, a person might not want to divulge his relationship status. Therefore, he talks about his significant other without making concessions as to their relationship. Instead of saying "She made dinner for me last night", an equivocational statement would be "Dinner was already made for me last night.".

Another example is the use of equivocation to deceive others without blatantly lying. For example, a person may ask directly, "Were you outside my window late last night?" The equivocal answer might pose an ambiguous question about the incident, sidelight it, or redirect interest toward some alternative interest. Examples include, "Oh, it was too cold to be outside. But I keep saying that the neighbor's cat needs to be restrained." "I heard something, too. Was it like a grunt?" Or "I was in bed late last night, what did you hear?"

In oral poetics[edit]

Poetic circumlocution is commonly used in oral poetics. It is, in fact, a definitive characteristic of many oral poetic traditions. Riddles, for example, are circumlocutory poetic games. Charms, spells and other incantations are another form of circumlocutory oral poetics. Circumlocution is often even a sacred injunction; the Judaic law prohibiting uttering the name of God is one of many examples of circumlocution taking the form of a sacred injunction.

African oral poetics constantly employs circumlocution, as does African American poetics. The blues, for example, whose lyrics often consist of an endlessly suggestive stream of imaginative metaphors, are defined by circumlocutory poetic logic, as Ben Sidran makes clear in his book Black Talk: "The direct statement is considered crude and unimaginative; the veiling of all contents in everchanging paraphrase is...the criterion of intelligence".

That African-American circumlocutory sensitivity and skillset was amplified and intensified by slavery and racial oppression in the US, as John Sobol makes clear in his book, Digitopia Blues - Race, Technology and the American Voice. The historic restrictions preventing slaves and their descendents from speaking their minds frankly, combined with their Afrocentric circumlocutory skills, gave rise to a wide range of circumlocutory idioms in America, from scat singing and jive talk to jazz itself, which Sobol argues is a circumlocutory language: "Jazz is the voice denied words."

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. ^ "Ambage" in American Heritage, and
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ "ambiguity - definition of ambiguity by the Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2013-05-23. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ "innuendo - definition of innuendo by the Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2013-05-25. 
  7. ^ New Oxford American Dictionary 2nd edition © 2005 by Oxford University Press, Inc.

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