Saturday, March 13, 2010


Language, whether spoken or written, is a medium of communication in which words are skillfully arranged in order that diversity of thought, wish and feeling expressed by the speaker or writer may clearly be understood by the listener or reader, leaving no scope for misinterpretation. Going by the same yardstick, the opening line of this piece itself contravenes the very rule by by its sheer length. Yet, there is a greater sin than this in the use of language. And that is circumlocution.

Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary describes circumlocution as 'the use of many word to say something that could be said in a few words. A classic example of circumlocution was given by Dr. Samuel Johnson, the father of modern English dictionaries. According to him, a friend of his who wanted a pinch of snuff had asked him, 'could I take with the digital ends of my hand from the concavity of your palm some powdered tobacco?' A truly roundabout talk!

A habitual circumlocutor uses this form of language merely to show off his erudition. Unwittingly, he makes a brazen display of his snobbery(like the friend of Dr. Johnson just alluded to). He falls into the category of pompous asses (I often get the nagging doubt that I could be one of them). For a circumlocutor, an ordinary thirst can be 'a deglutitional longing for aqueous solution caused by the parching of the oropharyngeal membrane'.

And a discussion is 'a bidirectional flow of logically verbalized thought process'. If one asked him what circumlocution actually meant, he would describe it as 'an instance where multifarious utilization of wordy configurations switch roles with their frugal application resulting in disproportionately inflated semantic content of the sentence! '

Snobbery at Its Best

The circumlocution is often used as a legitimate tool by certain sections of the society such as politicians, career diplomats and lawyers, to name a few. While a politician uses it with uncanny precision either to keep the public in dark about what he actually promises or to parry awkward questions at press conferences, a career diplomat makes vague and lengthy speeches to keep all doors open for future negotiations. But a lawyer is miles ahead of the rest in the skilled application of the art of circumlocution.

Without prejudice to the norms of the legal profession, I must admit that a lawyer uses circumlocution to hilt and artfully to boot, as it has been his wont for centuries. To emphasize that his client was asleep, at the the murder took place, a lawyer could say, "Your Honour, my client, as always did, having a substantial quantity of nourishment and being overwhelmed by the exhausting effects of hard manual labour, ventured to knock off the last vestiges of wakefulness which he ultimately succeeded in doing, at the time the murdered man breathed his last."

Haig Locution

And finally, when it comes to circumlocution, Alexander Haig, the former US State Secretary, takes the cake. Haig, a career diplomat turned politician, was once approached by one of his office clerks asking for a raise (in his salary). Without batting eyelid Mr. Haig said, "My dear son, because of the fluctuational predisposition of your position's productive capacity as juxtaposed to the Government standards, it would be momentarily injudicious to advocate an increment."

With utter incomprehension, the clerk said, " I don't get it." (meaning he didn't understand what Haig said). "That's right." replied Mr. Haig coolly.

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1 comment:

Hale McKay said...

Great article! I've read that Alexander Haig story before.

Another great circumlocutor was Rumsfeld.

I'll stop by again soon.