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shameless pleading

Pomp and Circumstance

And, in the distance, the baying of creditors grows louder.

Dear Word Detective: I was remembering a sermon a friend of mine delivered which described a certain biblical royal procession. Building to a glorious climax, he accidentally referred to the event as being full of “pomp and circumcision.” I don’t think he achieved the intended effect. This remembrance does have me wondering, though, what the origin is of the phrase correctly, albeit less humorously, rendered, “pomp and circumstance”? Would you be so kind as to inform us? — Father Paul Edgerton.

Well, that’s one way to see who’s paying attention. There’s probably a case to be made for slipping that sort of zinger into, say, every third sermon, enough to keep the flock on its toes but not so much as to spawn rumors of enfeeblement. After all, publishers of encyclopedias and dictionaries use a similar tactic to detect plagiarism, usually including at least one fictitious entry, commonly known as a “Mountweazel,” in their reference works. If the bogus entry later turns up in another publisher’s product, it’s lawyer time. The term “Mountweazel” (you know you want to know) comes from just such a “gotcha” entry in the 1975 edition of the New Columbia Encyclopedia for a certain “Lillian Virginia Mountweazel” (supposedly born in Bangs, Ohio, a master photographer of rural mailboxes, and tragically killed in an explosion while on assignment for “Combustibles Magazine”).

“Pomp and circumstance” as it is usually used means, of course, a great display of ceremonial grandeur and ornate formality of the sort commonly seen at coronations, the funerals of heads of state and, usually (but not always) on a somewhat smaller scale, high school graduations. For most people, the phrase “pomp and circumstance” invokes the musical piece of the same name, a staple of graduation ceremonies in the US and more properly known as March Number One of Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance Military Marches, Op.39.” The phrase “pomp and circumstance” was popularized (and thus preserved) by Shakespeare in his play Othello, Act III, scene iii: “Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump, The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife, The royal banner, and all quality, Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!”

The “pomp” in “pomp and circumstance” is familiar to most of us, and means “a display of magnificence and splendor.” The root of “pomp” is the Latin “pompa,” meaning “procession,” based on a Greek root meaning “to send.” “Pomp” can be used in a negative sense as well, meaning “an ostentatious display of wealth or ceremony,” which gave us the useful adjective “pompous,” which originally meant simply “characterized by pomp” but now means “self-important or arrogant.”

The puzzle in “pomp and circumstance” is “circumstance.” We use “circumstance” today, usually in the plural form “circumstances,” to mean the context or conditions surrounding something, the place, time, causes and effects, etc., of an action or state of being. That makes perfect sense, since the Latin root of the word, “circumstare,” meant literally “to stand around.” But a dull noun like “circumstance” seems a weird companion for glamorous “pomp.” However, beginning in the 14th century, “circumstance” was also used to mean specifically “the ceremony or fuss made about an important event,” in the sense that such things happened “around” the event. This sense is now considered archaic, although, thanks to Shakespeare, we still have “pomp and circumstance.”

You’ve probably noticed that, given the above explanation, “pomp and circumstance” is more than just a little redundant, amounting to something close to “pomp and pomp.” But as the parent of any graduating college senior can attest, when the bank account is drained and the third mortgage looms, there had better be plenty of “pomp” at the finish line.

11 comments to Pomp and Circumstance

  • Christian

    A brilliant explanation. Thank you.

  • Chris Way

    Nice to know: The term “Pomp and Circumstace” is also used by the character of Danny Dravott in Kiplings “The man who would be king”, describing his upcoming marriage.

  • Why not just acknowledge the etymology of circumstance a bit more to understand the phrase? There’s a pompous display, and some others standing around staring at it?

  • mododavid

    Thank you so much for the explanation. This is the ONLY place I’ve found that has explained this phrase and has done it so well. I’ve been curious about this phrase since the first time I read the Odessey (about ten years ago in college), and I wondered why these ancient characters would use such a presumably modern phrase. Bad translation I guess. Thank you. Also, you’re right. Everyone explains the obvious “pomp” well enough, but there’s never a good explanation of “circumstance.”

  • Excellent answer! not only informative, and exact but thorough, enough information was given to assist the learner/requestor so if it is said or given in the wrong content you supplied multiple scenerios and information to use as resources to pull from.

  • Craig Salvay

    Consider using the word “tautology” in your explanation of the connection between “pomp” (Greek origin) and “circumstance” (Latin origin). Though pomp came to Latin from Greek (“pompein” = to send), I observe that literature and dictionaries of the 14th through 17th centuries seem often to use or cite the Latin (often French) and Greek words, perhaps to make the linguistic scholars of those centuries pleased that all then-modern forms of a meaning were being preserved and carried into English. Regardless of the origin of the practice of dual citation/usage (Latin & Greek), this practice among English linguists provided a language that is the richest repository of words in the modern world.

  • McLaffs

    Great explanation. I’ve reluctantly used the term to playfully describe the procedures necessary to award contracts for construction work. What I’m trying to get across is “these next actions are ceremonial in nature.” I feel okay with my past usage, post-explanation. “Okay” itself, is an etymological endeavor for another day.

  • Syn

    I had always thought it was a statement of mocking contrast.

    The display of glory and greatness leading to military adventure, (pomp)
    verse the dreariness, death and despair of war.(circumstance).

    or does that make no sense?

  • Andrey

    The full quote from Shakespeare is actually: “Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war”. Not sure if it actually meets the explanation given here: “the ceremony or fuss made about an important event”.

  • Pompa Circensis

    I wonder if Shakespeare lifted it from this expression?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pompa_circensis

    “Pompa”: Latin for Procession. “Circensis”: A chariot circus. These were big parades/processions prior to a day of chariot games.

    ( There were other “Pompa”s. eg: “Pompa Triumphalis” for when a conqueror received a Triumph ).

    I wonder if then, the latin expression “pompa circensis” was common at the time of Shakespeare and may have been introduced into English as “Pomp and Circumstance”.

    This is just speculation, but the similarity of the two expressions and the oddness of a term like “circumstance” make me wonder.

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