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.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page