C is for Circumlocution

elaborate, roundabout, or indirect speech or writing. 
Also known as Periphrasis.

He was dispatched to his Final Reward somehow sounds nicer than The Feds shot him away. (this is also known as a euphemism)

The fact that we are taking a muscular stance does not require that we must ride that horse to the bitter end and go down with it. (I did a blog post on this one, uttered in a meeting, which had me so delighted, I had to write it down before I forgot it.  It would have been better if he had said, We have taken this stand, but we don’t have to die for it.”)

Circumlocution is often used in order to avoid saying outright something that might be painful.  My cat crossed the Rainbow Bridge seems somehow less tear-making than “I had to have my cat euthanized.”  

Damon Runyon’s stories about the seamier side of New York City involved a lot of circumlocution:

If I have all the tears that are shed on Broadway by guys in love, I will have enough salt water to start an opposition ocean to the Atlantic and Pacific, with enough left over to run the Great Salt Lake out of business. But I wish to say I never shed any of these tears personally, because I am never in love, and furthermore, barring a bad break, I never expect to be in love, for the way I look at it love is strictly the old phedinkus, and I tell the little guy as much.

 In Runyon’s case, the circumlocution serves to illuminate a certain sort of character.  And here, for a wonder, is a scene from the movie Guys and Dolls with Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra, where their words are drawn out and ornate and the speech (Brando’s, I mean) is one of my favorite in literature.  He speaks of advice from his father:

“Son, you are now going out into the wide, wide, world to make your own way, and it is a very good thing to do, as there are no more opportunities for you in this burg. I am only sorry that I am not able to bankroll you to a very large start, but not having any potatoes to give you, I am now going to stake you to some very valuable advice, which I personally collect in my years of experience around and about, and I hope and trust you will always bear this advice in mind. Son, no matter how far you travel, or how smart you get always remember this: Some day, somewhere, a guy is going to come to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is never broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that the jack of spades will jump out of this deck and squirt cider in your ear. But son, do not bet him, for as sure as you do you are going to get an ear full of cider.

8 comments on “C is for Circumlocution

  1. Fran Clark says:

    Excellent post. A word I'd forgotten I knew and something I should experiment with more!

  2. Hi Diana – great word … and with that added interesting explanation .. how often people go round their stories .. I love the horse one – no wonder you had to write it down .. I couldn't get the video – but I'm sure I could find similar on Yt – just yours doesn't like the Brits!! Cheers Hilary

  3. Diana Wilder says:

    Thank you! I checked out your novel, and writing blog, and am very impressed!

  4. Diana Wilder says:

    Thank you, Hilary – that man was an original. That's YouTube video, but they tend to be spotty. If you're ever curious – for it IS quite amusing – Search for Damon Runyon Guys & Dolls movie Do We Have A Bet.

  5. That is a good word. I've only seen a play of Guys and Dolls. What was going on here with the cheesecake!? lol

  6. Diana Wilder says:

    Hi, Debra – I've never seen the play or the movie, but I read the stories it was based on. Sinatra's character, a 'sharp', is trying to get Brando's character to bet on something he's rigged. Toward the end of the exchange (which is a little hard to follow) Brandon says, “I would be very surprised if someone didn't spend yesterday tallying the number of cheesecake here, and knows which sold more.” He certainly took a LOT of words to say it!

  7. Anonymous says:

    Hi Diana. Like your Circumlocution example,( “Circumlocution is often used in order to avoid saying outright something that might be painful. “My cat crossed the Rainbow Bridge” seems somehow less tear-making than “I had to have my cat euthanized.” ) We do this all the time. This is the first I've heard this word. Thank you for expanding my vocabulary. 🙂

  8. Cherdo says:

    Your examples are priceless! But the more I thought about it, nurses uses “nice ways” of saying things all the time. “Oops…accident” sounds so much better than “Oh heaven help us – did that come out of you??”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.