Meanings: “Circumstances”

December 20, 2011

A colleague writes to others on a search committee, “Due to circumstances it sees unlikely that we will be able to set up interview conference calls during the first week in January.”  ‘Darn those pesky circumstances,’ was my first thought, but, realizing we all say things like this (it’s a nice way of saying “I have my reasons….), I then wondered where the word “circumstances” comes from.  Etymology.com to the rescue: “conditions surrounding and accompanying an event.”

Or at least that’s what the singular “circumstance” means.  Turns out “circumstance” has a plain old Anglo-Saxon cousin in “outskirts.”  The suggestion in both is that we’re talking about the surroundings of something, not the essential thing itself.  But why do we need to make it plural if we’re talking about what’s all around the event: do we have to go around twice?

Here’s the full entry from etymology.com:

circumstance Look up circumstance at Dictionary.com
early 13c., “conditions surrounding and accompanying an event,” from O.Fr. circonstance “circumstance, situation,” also literally, “outskirts” (Mod.Fr. circonstance), from L. circumstantia “surrounding condition,” neut. pl. of circumstans (gen. circumstantis), prp. of circumstare “stand around,” from circum “around” (see circum-) + stare “to stand” from PIE base *sta- “to stand” (see stet). The Latin word is a loan-translation of Gk. peristasis. Meaning “a person’s surroundings, environment” is from mid-14c. Obsolete sense of “formality about an important event” (late 14c.) lingers in Shakespeare’s phrase pomp and circumstance (“Othello” III, iii).
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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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