An Introduction to Circumlocutio

Circumlocution (also by the terms ‘circumlocutio,’ ‘circumitio,’ ‘periphrasis’ and the epithet ‘the figure of ambage;’ etymologically from Latin, literally “a talking around”), is a verboseOpens in new window form of speech which consists in using indirect words for the dignifying thought or in mollifying the blunt and bare version of an expression.

Circumlocution typically involves a “roundabout and bombastic”—using too many descriptive phrases to add unnecessary details—mode of expressing what should generally be said in plain language. This device can be quite an essential tool of communication, however, when it is taken to a degree of excessiveness, it results to affectationOpens in new window.

Notable Examples
  • Circumlocution usually takes a lengthened form in its attempt to add emphasize a point; as, “It would take a good deal of argument to convince me of that …” instead of simply stating “I doubt that …”; thus, it can also take the form of euphemism; as,The fallen—speaking of the dead—are borne forth publicly by the state,” instead of simply saying, “buried.”
  • Laertes, urging Ophelia to keep clear of Hamlet, refers to her virginity metaphorically through a circumlocation:
    ...Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open To his unmast'red importunity.
    — (Shakespeare, Hamlet 1.3.31-32)
Further Readings:
Silver Rhetoricae: CircumlocutionOpens in new window
Bede (“periphrasis” p. 614); Ad Herennium (“circumitio” p. 43);
Putt. (“periphrasis,” “the figure of ambage” (1589) 203)