circumlocution (rhetoric)
Definition - A figure of speech where meaning is expressed (or obfuscated) by using imprecise words.

Example -
The factuality of my previous statements on this issue has become obsolete. (I.e., I was wrong.)

Etymology -
The word derives from the Latin circumlocutionem, speaking around (from circum, around + locutionem, a speaking). It was coined as a loan translation of the Greek periphrasis, speaking around.

Oxford English Dictionary -
Its first citation is from around 1510: "When thou must in speche touche … Such maners unclenly, use circumlocution."
(Barclay Mirr. Good Mann. (1570) Fvj)

Anecdote -

Is circumlocution always wrong?

When I was younger and began working, one of my first jobs was as a writer/researcher for a Canadian Member of Parliament. Relishing this unexpected opportunity — up to then I had, literally, been working on the railroad — I felt I had a chance to realize one of my few lifetime goals: to write well and influence people.

So when my boss, a very clever lawyer who was also an ex-radio broadcaster, asked me to write a "think" piece that would be mailed out to everyone in his riding (i.e. the area that elected him), I was ready.

Over the next few days I worked very hard on the piece, and in the end produced what I thought was a concise masterpiece of political analysis and persuasion; one that was both humorous and to the point. You'll have to take my word for this.

I handed it over to my boss for review and waited. He gave it back to me about 15 minutes later. It was littered with red strikethroughs. He had crossed out almost every witty or provocative statement in the piece, and in many cases had replaced it with a banal circumlocution. It read like insurance-industry boilerplate.

I was really upset, disgusted even. But when I settled down, I walked back into his office and asked him to explain his methodology.

Me: (pointing at a red strikethrough) Why do you want to get rid of this? It's funny. It reads well. It'll make them think.
Him: I don't want them to think. If they think, they might disagree. If they disagree, I might lose a vote.
Me: But you could gain votes.
Him: Not likely. Those who didn't vote for me will probably just throw it directly into the garbage. Heck [people used to say this!], I don't even want them to read it. All I want to do is remind them that I exist and make sure they remember my name.

Later, after pondering this for awhile, I realized that he was right. Political mailouts aren't New Yorker essays. My writing goals were in conflict with the genre I was being asked to work within.

The moral of the anecdote is that there are times when circumlocution exactly suits the rhetorical purpose. So the next time you hear someone complain about some politician's banality, the euphemisms, the weasel words, the gratingly circumlocutive sound bite; when you hear this, remind yourself that you are hearing someone complain about an elected politician masterfully using the tools he or she needs to use to get re-elected.

Please comment