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What is Circumlocution?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Andrew Jones
  • Last Modified Date: 28 September 2016
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Circumlocution is a roundabout or ambiguous way of saying things. For example, saying "a certain long-eared animal with a penchant for carrots" instead of "rabbit" is circumlocutory. Circumlocution may also be called ambage, circumduction, circumvolution, periphrase, or periphrasis. There are many different types of circumlocution and many different reasons for speaking in a roundabout manner.

One of the simplest reasons for using circumlocution is the inability to recall the correct word for something. This often happens to second-language learners, but is also characteristic of some types of aphasia, language loss due to brain damage. It should be noted that most people experience this phenomenon occasionally, even in their native tongue. Circumlocution is often an effective means get the point across in such situations.

Circumlocution can also be used for social reasons, for example, to avoid saying something unlucky or offensive. The use of circumlocutory speech to avoid unlucky or taboo words is a form of euphemism. Sometimes, euphemism is simply the substitution of one word for another, but in other cases, many words are used to describe something instead of using the true word for it, which may be considered offensive, upsetting, or unlucky. For example, one may say that someone "passed away" or "is no longer with us" instead of saying that person "died," in order to avoid upsetting his or her listeners.

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Circumlocution can also be used in order to speak ambiguously or equivocally. A person may use ambiguous circumlocutory speech for effect, for example in a humorous double entendre, or to make a certain sentiment fit the rhyme and meter of a poem. Circumlocutory speech can also be used, however, to deceive or misinform. Politicians and lawyers are often accused of this type of circumlocution, because it can sometimes be very difficult to determine which side of a political issue one should support simply by listening to its proponents, or to understand the finer points in a legal contract.

Circumlocutory speech with the intention to deceive is not limited to groups of people who use specialized speech professionally, however. One can encounter such examples of equivocation in nearly any situation. For example, an equivocating person may say "I may not have been exactly truthful" instead of directly admitting to a lie.

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